Reflective Gene Forrester becomes best friends with the vibrant and enigmatic Phineas during the summer of 1942. While the war takes its toll outside the privileged Devon School, the two teenagers transition from one mad idea to another – from invented ball games and forbidden getaways to mysterious secret societies. As he becomes closer to Phineas, however, Gene realizes a deep-seated frustration and darkness within him. He unleashes this upon Phineas, and their friendship is changed for good.
My favorite books, when it comes down to it, are pieced together by a sense of loneliness and a determination to simply present a narrative regardless of form or language – the most important thing is to get the story out there for people to read. ‘A Separate Peace’ is a good example. It’s elegant in its languid way of unfolding events, but the most important detail of the novel is how his relationship with Phineas – and what happens between the two of them in the years 1942 and 1943 – changes Gene forever. The novel is sensitive and insightful without being melodramatic. Everything is laid out in the matter-of-fact language of the precocious intellectual that is Gene, and that’s what makes his realizations about himself and about human nature more relatable and startling.
The whole time I was reading the book, I was wondering what its title could mean. It’s referenced clearly within the story, but it doesn’t strike me as just that – that the ‘separate peace’ for these boys is the time they spent cushioned from the reality of war in their boarding school. In the first place, his last years in school meant for Gene an awakening of savage emotions within himself – a desire to hurt, a desire to become the best among his peers – and in a way, a period of battle during which he was struggling against his inner nature. To me then, what makes his last golden days at Devon even more precious is Gene’s realization that he is experiencing the last of true peace he will ever know. In the company of the trusting Phineas, Gene feels all is well with the world. But as his relationship with his best friend becomes rocky, Gene, too, has to face inevitabilities – he has a duty to serve in the war, as well as the task of learning to deal with the wickedness in him that marks his entrance into the world of adulthood.
Chosen Quotable: “I could never agree with either of them. It would have been comfortable, but I could not believe it. Because it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.” p. 193
This blog gives ‘A Separate Peace’ 5 out 5 stars.
Title: A Separate Peace (1959).
Author: John Knowles.
Publisher: Bantam Books.
Photo (c) Time Entertainment.