Book Review: A Separate Peace by John Knowles

separate peace

Gene, an introverted teen at a boarding school in New England, befriended his polar opposite, Phineas, whose reckless and carefree attitude is admired by everyone. During World War II, these boys struggle to maintain their childish innocence in a time where teenagers were expected to grow up fast. Knowles puts parallels between one summer with the boys and the war that rages on across the ocean.

So, this is another list book, and I can’t say I was thrilled to read it when I began. It seemed… boring. And it is.

Like I said, I already went in with low expectations, so I wasn’t really starting it out with 5 turtles. The book dragged on and on, and the characters weren’t likable. I’m sure this is a literary masterpiece, but for me, it didn’t seem all that riveting.

First of all, I always expected them to go into the war, which they never did. It’s always hard when you expect a book to turn one way and it does something completely different. For instance, I once thought I was reading a historical fiction novel on the Titanic, but it turned out to be science fiction. Whenever a drastic change like this occurs, it throws me off and I end up not loving the book as much, which is kind of what happened here.

The characters are dull. I didn’t like any of them, and I didn’t feel connected to Gene throughout any of the book. Even though it’s written in first person point of view, I never knew what Gene was really thinking. The reader only really read the surface of the problems, and I feel like there’s a lot of guessing and inferring involved, which probably makes it “great” literature.

The whole book feels pointless. Since I was always expecting a change in scenery to the battlefield, the novel felt like an extremely long exposition to me. Nothing actually happens.

It’s almost Catcher in the Rye-like because it’s purpose is to make the reader think and get the metaphor across rather than the story concept. I adore Catcher in the Rye, but this one didn’t even really make me think. I just read it, rolled my eyes because of the lack of events, and moved on.

So, back to it being great. Why? Don’t get me wrong; I see how someone could enjoy or love this book, but why is it still around as “great?” Since all pivotal literature is metaphorical, this one is as well.

I think the big marker event where **SPOILER ALERT** Phineas falls out of the tree and breaks his leg because Gene shook the branch may represent the psychological turning point in the war for the young man who fought in it. At first, it seems exotic and heroic, but once the first injury or first real battle occurs, it’s no longer all daisies and rainbows. No, now it’s war, and all innocence is shed for protective gear and a fast gun. This is also seen in one of the boys who goes to war and comes back arguably senile. The guilt of hurting Finny (shooting someone) drives Gene crazy, and the agony of the broken leg (or bullet wound) is driving Phineas crazy. At the same time, on a level that relates more with the plot of the story, Finny’s fall may represent Gene’s betrayal in their friendship and the way it destroys Finny. **END SPOILER**

Of course, the writing is beautiful and the descriptions and quotable material is plentiful. It flows like sand between your fingers with eloquent word choice and stunning observations. You could point to basically anywhere in the book and find that passage quotable.

Overall, I think it’s writing extremely well and has an important metaphorical level to it, but I don’t consider it “great” because nothing really happens to the characters.

2.5 Stars


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