‘A Separate Peace’ review


Haley Miller, Reporter

There is a slim number of books that have enthralled me to the point of absolute consumption and that I can read for hours upon hours without so much as a drink of water. “A Separate Peace” is one of those few books. Unfortunately, most people in 2018 aren’t aware of its existence, let alone its subtle brilliance.

Set in New Hampshire during World War II, “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles tells the story of main character Gene Forrester and his best friend Phineas, otherwise known as Finny. They are roommates at The Devon School, their boarding school and the setting throughout the novel. It begins with Gene visiting 15 years after his senior year at Devon, reminiscing mournfully and looking upon his youth with wiser eyes. Told from this perspective, the rest of the story is essentially about his close, and often rivalrous, relationship with Finny while they are at school. The book isn’t plot driven, rather, it is propelled by the underlying themes and complex relationships between characters. Without a doubt, “A Separate Peace” is an underrated yet magnificent piece of literature that comments on the underbelly of adolescence and human nature itself.

The characters in “A Separate Peace” are some of the most well-developed and interesting I’ve ever read about. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more likeable character than Finny. He’s charismatic, witty, kind and full of vitality. His fatal flaw, in my opinion, is his tendency to be too trusting. He has no fear in anyone because he believes no one would wish to hurt him. Is there a more loveable weakness than this? As I was reading, I found myself wanting to reach through the pages and give him a hug. He’s light and gregarious, and his characterization by Knowles was perfect.

Gene, the narrator, is also a memorable character, especially considering readers may find him a little more relatable. His internal conflict is the driving force behind the story. Without giving too much away, I can say this: He sees Finny as both his best friend and rival. This inner turmoil was an entirely new type of conflict for me to read, and I loved seeing Knowles delve into the darker aspects of human nature. His characters and their actions are almost Freudian, causing every line of dialogue to feel packed with meaning. Each sentence has a purpose, and it is up to the reader to determine what it is.

The carefully constructed sentences are initially what made me fall in love with “A Separate Peace.” Knowles’s prose is beautiful and evocative, flows effortlessly and allows the reader to become immersed. Chapter 12 contains a perfect example of this. From Gene’s perspective, Knowles writes, “I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me.” The word choice is flawless, the syntax is exemplary and the quote as a whole is unforgettable. Fortunately for the reader, there are countless others just like it in the remainder of the novel.

There’s no question that “A Separate Peace” is a literary classic. It can even be found on high school reading lists. But as the seasons and the minds of the people have changed, the novel has evolved into a relic of the past century. It is, in other words, the classic that no one reads. I think the reason for this is mostly that it was written in 1959, and some current readers find the themes and story irrelevant. Novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird” are still read because there’s no question that their themes are relevant. “A Separate Peace” is more subtle. It takes place at an all-boys prep school, composed of mostly well-to-do students. It doesn’t seem like something with which most readers can relate. However, if you take the time to dive beneath the surface, you see the novel is a work that can touch the heart of every reader. Even if you can relate in no way, shape or form to a wealthy boarding school attendee, you will still find yourself feeling as if the author is speaking directly to you. That is because it remarks on the very essence of human nature, bringing forth a swell of existential questions about duality, conformity and innocence. A story like that can never drift into irrelevance.

“A Separate Peace” is an exceptional work of literature that combines all of the best elements of writing. The characters are well-written, the prose is lovely and the classic themes resonate with the reader long after the book has been put down. For this reason, the story is timeless. Knowles created a haunting and poignant masterpiece. I’m writing this a day after I finished reading it, and already I can tell that “A Separate Peace” will be with me for years to come.