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A Separate Peace ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Separate Peace ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

John Knowles’ 1959 novel, A Separate Peace, has become a modern classic, has sold millions of copies, and is regularly found on high school reading lists. It’s a coming-of-age story about life in a boys’ prep school in New Hampshire in 1942, focusing on two boys in particular, Gene and Phineas. Gene is an introspective intellectual with a dark side and Phineas an outgoing star athlete, liked by all. As different as they are, they are best friends and roommates.

The sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys at the Devon School are on the threshold of adulthood, but they are also on the threshold of something else: World War II is raging, in Europe and elsewhere, and it is a given that all of the boys are preparing in some way to enter the war when they finish school. The war influences everything they do and think. Will they make it through alive? Will they be brave, or will they follow their natural instincts and preserve their own lives at any cost? These are questions that young men have been asking themselves for as long as wars have been waged.

Through Gene Forrester’s first-person voice narration, we get a sense of how different Phineas and Gene are. Phineas seems to be above rivalry or competitiveness (or any “ugly” emotion), but is there something in Gene’s nature that would force him to deliberately hurt Phineas because Phineas is always the best at any athletic endeavor and in a way insufferable? An incident involving a tree during the last fateful summer at school causes a tragedy that fuels the second part of the story and forces Gene, and others, to question his motives and his character.

A Separate Peace is a readable classic, just under 200 pages, on the universal themes of friendship and growing up. It has a feeling of truth and authenticity to it; that’s why people are still reading it sixty years after its first publication.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

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