Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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's crowning achievement and an undisputed American classic.

My take: 4 looks
Set in the beginning of WWII, this story centers on the relationship of two boys, Finny and Gene. The POV is exclusively Gene's, which makes for an unreliable narration simply because it is one-sided.

There are many themes in this book: relationships, war, boarding school, competitions, military draft, and it goes on and on. However, this book for me was based on one thing: a senior year in the life of a student (Gene) and his relationships and experiences. Gene was a very complex character. Finny was his roommate and best buddy, but there was also a sense of competition bordering on manic between them. Finny was gregarious and overwhelming to Gene, and Gene struggled to maintain his identity in the shadow that was his roommate.

At the climax of the book, it is almost an afterthought that Gene jostled the branch on which he and Finny were standing. No emphasis is put on the decision that caused Gene to do this, indicating that it was not predetermined or premeditated. It simply happened. I don't think for a minute that Gene intended Finny to fall from the branch; it was just a horrible accident.

My surprise, however, was in the character of Brinker. He seemed maniacal, conniving and determined to bring Finny and Gene to their knees. The author makes it clear that Brinker was like Finny in many ways, and in his senior year took the lead role of the school easily because of Finny's accident. Once Finny is back at school, however, Brinker has to play second fiddle, and I think that is what fuels his fire to the culminating "trial" at the end of the book.

I saw Finny's accident the first time as that, an accident. It was clear that, even though Gene felt competition toward his friend, he loved him. Brinker, on the other hand, planned from the beginning to draw blood in the trial setting. He planned an expose, to shame someone. The fact that Finny had to flee to get rid of what he considered a painful situation places his second accident squarely on the shoulders of Brinker. I was frustrated that he was never called on his actions in the incident.

In the end, it was a brilliant character study. Relationships set against the backdrop of a boarding school with rich history, against the backdrop of brilliantly described seasons, against the backdrop of the impending and increasing American activity in the war that would change history...This is a classic worth reading and will make you think long after the last page.

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