“A Separate Peace”- Book Review

I know next to nothing about author John Knowles. If you were to quiz me, all I could say is that he was American, he was a novelist, and he’s best known for the book I’m getting ready to talk about. That’s it. I hadn’t read many reviews for A Separate Peace before I began reading it, and the few I did see praised it as being emotional, compelling, and an unforgettable coming-of-age story. I happen to disagree.

The story presents itself as a detailed memory, as the grown-up version of the protagonist, Gene Forrester, returns to his old prep school one day to reflect on his time spent there from the summer of 1942 to the summer of 1943. He recalls his academic talent, his friendship with a popular, athletically skilled roommate Phineas (nicknamed Finny), and the competitive comradery between the two. Following a tragic accident, their relationship and their lives are forever changed. And to make things worse, the harsh reality of the Second World War is starting to weigh heavily on their shoulders.

Objectively speaking, there’s nothing particularly bad about A Separate Peace. It’s a relatively quick read, the characters are decent, and the idea of exploring the loss of innocence in an era consumed by war is ripe for a gripping story. Subjectively, however, most of it is a slog to get through. The writing style feels a touch dated- which makes sense seeing how it was published in 1959- and thus it was hard for me to stay engaged with the story, which itself feels simultaneously eventful and uneventful.

The first two-thirds of the books are dedicated to details about what life is like at the prep school- what the boys do on weekends, the games they play, their discussions about the war- and it’s just not interesting. On the other hand, Knowles uses that time to add layers to Finny’s and Gene’s friendship. The two deeply admire one another- Finny, it’s Gene’s intellect; for Gene, it’s Finny’s athletic spirit- though they’re always in rough competition with one another. And when things go too far, it leads to more complex drama.

The start of the third act is where things finally get interesting. At this point, the characters are coming to terms with the war in different ways, and their inner conflicts clash with their growing patriotism. As soon as this happens, the story gains momentum. It doesn’t become anything great in my opinion, but at the very least it does get more interesting.

Overall, A Separate Peace is mostly boring. I almost gave up on it several times, though I pushed through because I try to finish what I start reading-wise. The book has a good finish, and despite it also having good elements sprinkled throughout, they’re not conveyed strongly enough to make the first half an interesting read. Its intentions are good, but it’s not something I recommend.

Cosmic Grade- C

 

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