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A Separate Peace by John Knowles

A Separate Peace (1959)

by John Knowles

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A Seperate Piece examines the transformational moments occurring in the lives of two students at boarding school life during the summer session in the years just prior to World War Two. The two main protagonists, Gene and Finny occupy center stage in this epic novel. The two become fast and furious friends during that summer of their upper middler year. Gene is captivated by the daredevil tactics, risk taking behavior, and beautiful athleticism of Finny. The two boys develop their own club, the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. Entrance into this organization involves a passage of rite into adulthood: jumping off the old tree overhanging the river. This task in fact represents military training for the older students heading off to war. So the two boys privately affirm their manhood as underclassmen by asserting their courage on a daily basis. One day Finny suggest the boys go to the beach. In characteristic fashion Finny extends the fun to include a sleepover at the beach. Gene goes along with the request but finds he is improperly prepared to handle his academic test the following morning. Courage becomes pitted against jealousy however as Gene becomes paranoid that Finny is out to undermine his strength area, academics. As Gene's grades slide, and he realizes Finny is a better athlete, Gene gives in to an impulsive fit of passion. That evening he shakes the branch as Finny attempts to make his way out to the jumping point. What results is catastrophic. Finny plunges to the ground and lands with a thud. His athletic career is over as he brakes his leg. Through this crucible, crossroads moment the lives of both boys are changed forever. Now Finny must live vicariously through the physical achievement of Gene, while Gene must make peace with his guilt of having damaged perhaps the greatest gift in Finny's life, his athleticism. The book continues with other characters engaging in tragic life bending decisions as the war looms closer. Finally an inquiry into the cause of Finny's condition leads to a fatal accident. One character in this book gets to live on to write the tale while the other protagonist loses life and limb in a sequence of unlikely tragic events. I highly recommend this read to anyone attempting to figure out what matters in life and what perhaps is less essential. ( )
  AidanCoffey | Nov 2, 2014 |
American novelist John Knowles captures the essence of the idea that competitive friendship turning to jealousy has negative consequences. This book was enjoyable because of its relatable nature and because of the way it gets the reader to feel for Gene even though he seems to be a disgruntled character. The setting is perfectly chosen for the novel. The book takes place at Devon preparatory school in New England. The novel’s protagonist, Gene Forester, visits Devon on a gloomy November day after not having been at the school in 15 years. From the gloomy setting itself, Knowles sets the tone of the entire novel for the reader. The characters themselves are quite relatable, making the novel engaging for the reader. Gene Forester is a thoughtful and intelligent young boy, with a competitive nature and a tendency to brood. He develops a love-hate relationship with his best friend, Finny, whom he alternately adores and envies. Whenever he is around Finny, there seems to be a threat to the codependency of Gene’s identity. This suggests that Gene was strongly uncomfortable with his own personality. When Gene ultimately finds out that Finnny does not feel the competitive relationship between them, the seemingly inevitable tragedy occurs and changes the entire novel. Besides the engaging and relatable plot, Knowles makes this an enjoyable read through his strong use of vivid language and powerful characterization. As a whole, I highly recommend this book as it is an enjoyable read for anyone, and for those who envy others, this book does a good job of showing you why you shouldn't. ( )
  Gus_Kasper | Nov 2, 2014 |
I was spurred to revisit John Knowles' A Separate Peace (1959) by my reading some months ago of Lionel Shriver's 1988 novel, Checker and the Derailleurs, because the character of Checker reminded me so strongly of that of Phineas in the earlier book, which has haunted me for forty years.

Knowles' characters are students in a Northeastern prep school during the darkest days of World War II; when I first read the book I was a student at a Northeastern prep school during the darkest days of Vietnam. (Our memories of our respective schools differ not at all: see "from A Separate Peace," http://ironicbees.blogspot.com/)

What struck me so forcefully about both Checker and Phineas is that, at the beginning of each book, they abide in a state of grace, of Menschlichkeit. More prosaically stated, they are persons I would wish to befriend and associate with, because I would feel genuine in their presence. Clearly the adolescent insecurity and fear that led me to long for a friend like Phineas is still strong.

Both characters' fall from grace (literally, in both cases), propelled by the envy and jealousy of their friends, is as inevitable as it is shocking and distressing. I don't know what to make of my reactions. But I know both books have influenced my life in ways no others have. ( )
  seth_g | Oct 31, 2014 |
I really liked this book, which is funny, because I HATED the book it was inspired by. So, well done, John Knowles, well done. ( )
  locriian | Oct 27, 2014 |
Gene was a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas was a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happened between them at school one summer during the early years of World War II is the subject of “A Separate Peace”. On of the most starkly moving parables ever written of the dark forces that brood over the tortured world of adolescence. The story tells of several boys at a New England private school. Jealousy, longing, friendship all get mixed up during one summer as the boys are on the edge of growing up and the brink of being shipped off to war. A brief moment of anger leads to the crippling of Phineas and his eventual death while Gene’s innocence and belief in good in the world is tortured and dies at the same time. A coming of age story and rife with symbolism as to the changes occurring in the world as the result of the war. The writing is fluid and smart with dark descriptions and a sense of foreboding throughout. It shows that the war was able to ruin lives even so far removed from the front. No doubt the author was accomplished, this being my first novel by him but the means of conveying his themes and even the imagery itself is a bit dated, creating a certain separation of experience and readability between the author, the characters and the modern reader. His control of tone, however, would make me read more, if only just one more novel. ( )
  loafhunter13 | May 5, 2014 |
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To Bea and Jim with gratitude and love
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I went back to Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
A Separate Peace is a story about two young boys who are close friends and go to Devon school together. Phineas, the more athletic of the two, and Gene, the more intellectually inclined seem to balance eachother out. The story is set in New England during WWII. It is full of insight, friendship, and also a tragedy. I really enjoyed this book because I found it to be one of the more interesting yet realistic stories that I have had to read for an English class. It was also fun because in my English class we had to make videos of different scenes of the book and I just had a lot of fun with it.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743253973, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:23 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

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.… (more)

» see all 9 descriptions

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