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A Separate Peace by John Knowles

A Separate Peace (1959)

by John Knowles

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Earlier this week, I finished reading John Knowles’ seminal novel, A Separate Peace. I had the book checked out from the library for almost 8 weeks and it took me about that long to read it. It’s a short novel at just over 200 pages, but for some reason I just wasn’t compelled to constantly read it like I often am with other books. Not that it wasn’t good. I found it a very good book, deserving of its status as a “classic”. After all, a pivotal moment in the novel is purposely left ambiguous in order for the reader to draw his own conclusions. The reader’s interpretation of this event will color his entire perspective of the events that follow.

The book centers on two boys, Gene and Finny, who are roommates at an elite East Coast prep school during World War Two. An older Gene is the narrator, who has come back to visit this place that so profoundly affected him as a young man. He wanders the school’s grounds, providing the reader with a sense of foreboding before beginning a long flashback to the carefree summer of 1942. The United States had entered the Second Great War by this time, but you wouldn’t know it from the behavior of these boys during their summer session. With many of their professors gone for the summer, the boys have much time for game-playing and mischief-making. A secret society is formed, centered around a ritual of jumping out of a giant oak tree that overhangs a creek, which Finny performs first and then “shames” Gene into doing as well. Finny’s exuberance and enthusiasm for everything he does draws the others boys to him and makes him a natural leader. His effortless athletic ability, his natural grace and composure, his good looks and boyish charm evoke the memories of myths of Greek heroes. As narrator, Gene says some of these characteristics of Finny’s “annoyed” him, but through the action of the story and the way Gene behaves toward his friend, we get a different picture of a darker undercurrent of jealousy.

I won’t give away any more of the plot details except to say that the old oak tree plays a pivotal role in the story. The themes of jealousy, hate, and war are prominent throughout, but also their opposites and the conflict between these co-existing states. In the end, the story leaves you with a lot to ponder and many things to figure out on your own, which is what helps make it a book definitely worth reading. ( )
  zenslave | Jan 23, 2015 |
I am sorry, but I did not appreciate this book. It has been labeled by many writers and critics as a "coming of age" novel, but I did not find the characters and their situations relatable at all. The fact that the main character admitted to purposely pushing his friend out of a tree was ridiculous. Even more ridiculous was the fact that Finny died after having leg surgery and an infection because his "heart gave up". When is the last time a strong and athletic teen had his or her heart stop because it was "upset". Also, the fact that gene Forrester felt jealous of Finny was silly because he was a better student and was also athletic. I thought the book just made Gene look like a jealous psychopath. I'm sure many people will have to read it anyway, but I did not feel the "deepness" that it is acclaimed for.
  TimSher | Jan 22, 2015 |
This is a classic and the story of boys at a prep school. Gene and Finny are roommates and good friends. Finny is athletic, charming and easy-going. Gene is more academic, and seems envious of Finny. There is an incident involving a fall from a tree that changes everything.

I had a hard time with this book. It is a relatively fast read at just over 200 pages. I think you can't help but envision Dead Poet's Society (one of my favorite movies) as you read it. The writing is good and the characters well developed. However I just found it boring. I kept waiting to be drawn in, and that never happened. In fact, I went to my book club discussion for this book, and couldn't even remember any details about what had happened. It is one of those books that within a day or two of completing it, I had completely forgotten it.

So if you like the classics, like books about the human psyche and the relationships between young boys discovering themselves, give this quick read a try. For me? I just never got it. ( )
  nfmgirl2 | Jan 13, 2015 |
I remember very little about the plot of this book as I read it 9 years ago. But this is the first and only book I hated so much that years later just seeing the cover makes me launch into an embittered tirade. Part of the problem here was the teacher that taught this English class. It was her cracked theory that the boys were not actually separate individuals but two halves of someone with multiple personality disorder that put the icing on the cake. I could not see where she came up with this idea and we then spent a great amount of time scouring the text to back up her claims. I hope they have removed this from the required reading for Manitoban high school students and replaced it with something decent. ( )
  plaeski | Dec 16, 2014 |
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 |
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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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