Jul 7, 2009

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

It wasn’t the cider that made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.
A Separate Peace is the story of Gene Forrester's friendship with his schoolmate Phineas, known as Finny. In the summer of 1942, both are students at Devon, a boarding school in New England. As sixteen-year-olds, they are still too young to join the army, and so they enjoy what nobody else seems to be able to enjoy that summer: a time of peace. Gene, who narrates the story, has conflicted feelings about Finny, to put it mildly. As time passes and his and his friends’ seventeenth birthdays approach, they also have to face a major decision: whether to enlist, or to wait until they’re drafted to join the war.

These are only the bare bones of the plot: a lot happens in this short and moving novel, and I want to let you find out as much of it as possible for yourselves. I’ve been meaning to read A Separate Peace for a while, but I decided to read it now because I discovered that Meg Rosoff’s lovely What I Was was based on it. They are very different stories in some ways, but they do have the same basic structure: a boarding school story, an unusual friendship between two teens, and a narrator who is looking back and remembering events that marked him forever. A Separate Peace also reminded me of another book I love, but I cannot tell you which one it is, as doing would be a big hint about what happens at the end. Sorry!

One of the things that struck me the most about this story was how lonely all of the characters were. Gene and Finny have an unusual friendship, like I said. Gene is never quite sure whether they are friends or rivals, and as a result he never really lets Finny get close to him. This real or imagined rivalry is the driving force behind the book’s main events. And in addition to this, there’s the fear they all live in. The first quote I included under notable passages is about that: the overpowering fear the war creates in these boys, a fear none of them would ever acknowledge, a fear that is never talked about. This permanent fear makes them to shun any display of vulnerability, lest their own be revealed.

Gene and his friends know they are expected to fight in the war, and more than that, they know they are expected to be excited about it. Older men look at them with a little envy, as if what awaited them were a wonderful adventure, not danger and potential death. They grow up with these expectations, and so their identity, their very idea of themselves as valuable people, as men, gets wrapped up in the war. To be unable to fight is to be a nobody. To not want to fight is unthinkable. And yet—well, how could they not be afraid? In this sense, A Separate Peace reminded me a lot of Wilfred Owen’s chilling poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”.

The story of Leper, the first of Gene’s friends to enlist, touched me in particular. But the themes of war, fear and identity are only some of the many sides of this novel. Like all the best books, A Separate Peace seems to be one that will show the reader something new every time they return to it.

Notable passages:
Now here it was after all, preserved by some considerate hand with varnish and wax. Preserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn’t even known it was there. Because, unfamiliar with the absence of fear and what that was like, I had not been able to identify its presence.

It was hard to remember in the heady and sensual clarity of those mornings; I forgot whom I hated and who hated me. I wanted to break out crying from stabs of hopeless joy, or intolerable promise, or because these mornings were too full of beauty for me, because I knew of too much hate to be contained in a world like this

It was a night made for hard thoughts. Sharp stars pierced singly through, not sweeps of them or clusters or Milky Ways as there might have been in the South, but single, chilled points of light, as unromantic as knife blades. Devon, muffled under the gentle occupation of the snow, was dominated by them; the cold Yankee stars dominated this night. They did not invoke in me thoughts of God, or sailing before the mast, or some great love as crowded night skies at home had done; I thought instead, in the light of those cold points, of the decision facing me.
I love how that last bit conveys the novel's loneliness so well.

Other Opinions:
Care’s Online Bookclub
books i done read
A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook
Reading Matters
Mr Magoo Reads
Books for Breakfast
Thoughts of Joy

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. I think one of my step-daughters have this on their shelf. I may just have to check it out for myself. Great review!

  2. I agree about the loneliness. I first read this as a young girl, and reading it again as the mother of a 12-year-old son was very different. I saw more of what the boys did as posing, because I'd seen so much of it in my son and his friends. Wartime intensifies that, but it's always a complicated struggle for adolescent males to compete against each other and define themselves.

  3. I really like the cover to this book. I am pretty sure I have read Knowles before, but the title is escaping me. This does look good, though!

  4. I read this one in high school and wow, it was a powerful book. The part about Leper really got to me, too. I'm terribly curious what the other book is you mentioned, and it won't be a spoiler to me- won't you tell?

  5. I'm so glad to hear you liked this so much. This is one of the books I've picked out for Annie and I to read next school year for our history through literature series. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't think I'd even heard of this book until I started looking for books to fit throughout periods of the 20th century.

    BTW, "A Separate Peace also reminded me of another book I love, but I cannot tell you which one it is, as doing would be a big hint about what happens at the end. Sorry!" You do know that's somewhat evil, don't you? ;)

  6. I just read this for the first time a few years ago. It wasn't a favorite of mine, but it is a very good book and worth reading.

  7. I am intrigued. I am fairy well versed with most literature that is available to read but I love that when I visit your blog I am usually surprised to find something new to me and worth reading.

  8. This is one of those books that I just can't stand. We had to read it in late middle school or early high school, and I didn't like it then. I was particularly put off by the completely unrealistic swimming scene. I was a competative swimmer, and I knew there was no way someone who'd never gotten in a pool before could break records at that speed. So ridiculous. A couple years ago, when I wasn't quite so touchy about swimming, I went back to reread it and see if I liked it better a decade or more years later. I couldn't make it through the first 2 chapters. The writing just grated on me. I hated the characters.

    I've read people's reviews that either love or hate this book, so it seems to be pretty yes or no. I do know that my kids will probably have to read it in school, and I will feel very sorry for them. :)

    (Sorry for such a negative comment. This is just one of those books that creates a very strong visceral emotion for me.)

  9. I absolutely love the cover. I was thinking about that period when I was sixteen and actually entered a period of peace. I had finished school, done my O levels and I remember being on holiday with my parents ( my last holiday away with them) feeling peaceful and wondering what the future held.

    Sorry I went off on a whim, floating through my memories. Especially as there peace was short lived and they lived with the fear of going off to war.

  10. I loved the writing in this book. and Amanda? I had given this to my cousin and she really didn't like it either. Actually thought the narrator was evil which I don't think I can agree with. So complicated, yes?

  11. I read this book one summer when I was in middle school. I'm afraid I only vaguely remember it now, although your review has brought some of it back for me. :-) I do remember liking it quite a bit though.

  12. Oh, I have to reread this! I bought it earlier this year at my university's book fair, but it's just sitting on my shelf. I haven't read it since tenth grade English class - I expect I'd get more out of it now. Thanks for the review!

  13. That sounds interesting. I loved What I was, so have just reserved this at the library!

  14. I read this oh-so-long-ago and loved it, and remember being quite moved by it, although I can't remember the story very well. Thanks for the reminder! I also always loved the title.

  15. I've had this book for more than a year now, but when I tried to read it I couldn't get after the first ten pages because I found it terribly boring. Maybe I should try again. Or maybe I should try Rosoff's What I Was first!

  16. I know a lot of people had to read this for school, but I never did. Your review makes me want to rectify that.

  17. I love this book so much and I had completely forgotten about it! I read it in high school and it was one of the few books that I actually loved. Aside from that, I hated required reading :p I have to get this one again. I'm dying to read it again now! Fantastic review Nymeth :)

  18. That "last bit" just convinced me I need to read this book. What a great paragraph!

  19. Read this in high school and of course we all grumbled.But Leper Lepellier was my favorite character, too--don't remember why, though I wrote an essay about him (which means I need to re-read this). It is also one of the College Student's--who was not assigned it in school--favorite books. So it has spoken across the generations. Your review is lovely. Thank you.

  20. I was made to read this book when I was in the 6th grade. It left me feeling gloomy and in a gray haze for a long time. I do wish we'd been assigned a funny one every now and then!

  21. I've had this book on my shelves for way too long and after reading your post I think I need to make sure I read it this summer!!

  22. Now you had me intrigued about this book, Nymeth! I'll definitely check this out. Thanks for the lovely review! :)

  23. I read this in high school and don't remember a thing about it except...

    We had to write an essay test when finished, and I spelled separate as seperate...and the teacher made some snide remark on my paper. To this day I have a hard time remembering the correct spelling. It was all quite traumatic. :-D

  24. Excellent review! This one is on my TBR. It sounds like a book I would love.

  25. That passage is awesome, it has a poetic quality to it :)
    I had heard of this book before but never read such a nicely done review. Thanks Nymeth.

  26. Heather, I hope you enjoy it :)

    Jeanne: That's very true, and it's an easy to forget. I blame gender roles :P

    Kailana: This is his most well-known one, but he has written quite a few others. Some actually feature characters from this book, so I'll have to check them out.

    Jeane: I was about to e-mail you telling you, when I realized it would be a spoiler for the other book too! And it's one you've shown interest in :P

    Debi: lol, sorry :P I think you and Annie will both enjoy it a lot!

    Heather: It depends on what I read in the next few months, of course, but in my case I can actually see it making my end of the year top!

    Claire: Likewise! Book bloggers are great for that :)

    Amanda: wow, that is a strong reaction :P Well, I loved the writing and the characters. Don't feel so bad for your kids...who knows, they might enjoy it :)

    Scrap Girl: That was a lovely memory, actually, so nothing to apologize for!

    Care: It is complicated! I wouldn't call Gene evil either, despite what he did. That's part of what I loved: the characters were so nuanced. Thanks again for recommending this, Care! You're one of the reasons why I picked it up.

    Wendy: I actually had no idea this was read in schools, but it seems that a lot of you read it in class!

    Jenny, I'd love to hear your thoughts when you re-read it :) I bet it's even better the second time around.

    Verity: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Daphne: Yes, it is a lovely title! And it captures the mood of the book so well.

    Alessandra: Aww, sorry to hear that! I loved the writing in this one, but What I was was even better.

  27. Bermudaonion, I hope you enjoy it if you do :)

    Chris, thanks! Like I was telling Jenny, I bet this is even better the second time around. You also need to read What I Was :P

    Terri B: Yes, isn't it?

    ds: Thank you! Now I wish I had read this in school, because I bet there were lots of things I missed. Ah well, I can always re-read it!

    Darla: lol, it's true...required reading does tend to be gloomy :P

    Staci: Do! I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    Melody: You're most welcome! I hope you enjoy the book :)

    Jill: lol, it's funny how those memories stay with you :P

    Teddy Rose, I hope you do love it!

    Violet: Yes! And the writing was like that throughout the whole book :)

  28. I read this one in high school -- more years ago than even I can believe! I remember thinking it was okay, I didn't love it. Maybe I was too young?

  29. Most people read this is my high school, but I was in a different class, so I never did! Sounds like it's time.

  30. Ah, so it's one I haven't read yet? Now I'm doubly curious! I'm going to have to go through my TBR list and find all the ones marked "found by Nymeth" and read them all!!

  31. This one sounds so good and the cover's beautiful. It's going into my wishlist and soon TBR. :D

  32. I read this in high school and it was pretty much one of my favorite books in that years curriculum. You did an excellent job with this review, and I think you hit the nail right on the head regarding the loneliness of the characters and the author's amazing ability to portray that in this book.

  33. I think I was 17 when I read this, and I remember that it was beautifully written and very moving. However, it's been so long, I don't remember much else about it. Time to reread it!

  34. I loved this book when I read it in high school, but I must admit, I don't exactly remember it. I did get a really really high score on the paper I wrote on it (I remember that!!), so I suspect it really resonated with me. And if it's about loneliness, that makes sense.

  35. I also hated this book when I read it for class in High School. Much later in life someone suggested that Gene relates to Finny the way he does because he is in love with him and can't come to terms with his own feelings. I read it again in light of this and gained much from the experience.

    If they could have mentioned that possiblity back in high school....

  36. Can you believe that I was supposed to read this in the 10th grade and didn't. Not sure how I managed to pass all my classes without doing the required reading. After reading your review I feel bad about skipping this one--sounds really lovely. And I didn't read any of the comments except CB's--could I count this towards the GLBT or is he referring more to a platonic love?

  37. I read this as a teenager, and thought it was okay. But when I reread it as an adult, all of a sudden I realized what the book was actually about. As a teen, I just couldn't appreciate the depth of this book, and just how amazing it is. How it packs so much into a short space.

  38. Beth: Maybe, or maybe it's just a matter of taste!

    Rebecca: Hope you enjoy it!

    Jeane: It is. Sorry! :P

    Alice: I love the cover too :)

    Zibilee, thank you! The loneliness really stood out to me.

    Robin, I hope you enjoy it just as much the second time around!

    Amy: Adolescence can be such a lonely period. I wish I had read this back then!

    C.B. James: You know, that actually crossed my mind while reading it. It definitely makes a lot of sense.

    Trish: It's more platonic. Nothing actually happens between them, but like CB James said, there definitely seems to be some tension.

    Kim: It really does!

  39. i really like the second passage you put up. It's not a book I have heard of or seen around, but I'm sure I'll start noticing it now.

  40. Wow. How is it that I never heard of this one?? Do you think it would be a good selection for the WWII challenge (meaning the war is a primary or secondary theme)? If so, is it okay to link to your review?

    Diary of an Eccentric

  41. Rhinoa: I actually hadn't heard of it either before Care's review. I guess it's more well-known in the US!

    Anna: You're always more than welcome to link to my reviews! Though the war is mostly in the background, I think this would work really well for the challenge because it shows the effect it had on boys growing up at the time.


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