Title: A Separate Peace
Author: John Knowles
Genre: Coming of Age, Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 1959
Page Count: 208
An American classic and great bestseller for over fifty years, A Separate Peace is timeless in its description of adolescence during a period when the entire country was losing its innocence to the second world war.
Set at a boys boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.
A bestseller for more than thirty years, A Separate Peace is John Knowles crowning achievement and an undisputed American classic.
A Separate Peace is a coming of age novel that focuses on the bond and friendship between Phineas and Gene during their last year of school. Although set back in 1942, during the start of World War II, the story is quite evocative and compelling as we’re taken into the mind of Gene.
The story is told in Gene’s perspective, a quiet and introspective student at a New England boarding school. From the start, it is evident that Gene’s relationship with Phineas is a defining part of his year at Devon. Unlike Gene, Phineas is charismatic and athletic, whose fullness of life overflows into those around him. What started off as an innocent friendship, however, becomes complicated as the burdens of war and growing up insinuates their once complacent lives. As Gene gravitates towards Finny and they become good friends, he experiences a growing resentment and envy for his friend.
“So the more things remained the same, the more they changed after all. Nothing endures. Not love, not a tree, not even a death by violence.”
Knowles flawlessly weaves together memories of the school year with the underlying emotions and unconscious thoughts that the boys experience. So much of what is felt is from the unsaid things and unintended actions.
Although Gene puts Finny at the pedestal of all his narratives, it is Gene’s character that I find most compelling. Not only does his intellect shine through in his narrative, Gene’s subconscious and sometimes tumultuous thoughts come through heavily to the readers. Effortlessly, Knowles has constructed a complicated main character whose thoughts and actions are sometimes inexplicable, sometimes flawed, but nonetheless human. I’ve never read a character who is so authentically complex yet in some ways, so well-understood.
The novel is a short read, and while it is a brief dive into their adolescent years, the characters have left an impression on me. It’s a thought-provoking coming of age novel, and I think I might reread it again in the future.
“Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.”