Author: John Knowles
Genre: Classic American Literature
Source: Personal Copy
A Separate Peace is the critically acclaimed novel by John Knowles, first published in 1959, in which a man returns to his former New England prep school and finds himself engulfed in memories of the pivotal summer of 1942 and the events that took place amongst schoolmates that would change their lives forever. This was Knowles' first novel and it grew out of an earlier short story he wrote entitled "Phineas."
Tantalizing hints are dropped throughout the first chapter as Gene rediscovers the geography of his alma mater and within the next few chapters, the reader is transported back in time as Gene recounts that strange school year when WWII was raging across the Atlantic.
Disparate in personality is Phineas, Gene's best friend and yet, strangely, also his adversary in that mysterious, pubescent-boy manner. Phineas is wealthy, free-spirited, confident, a born leader, and quite the opposite of Gene in every way. Despite their close friendship, something happens during that summer of 1942 that fundamentally changes the man Gene would become.
This now classic novel is subtle yet gripping throughout. Knowles masterfully manipulates the story using surprisingly little words (the novel is less than 200 pages in it's entirety), each one carefully chosen for maximum impact. In the end, it is a careful character study and while Gene is certainly the protagonist of the story, it is Phineas with whom you will fall in love. Rarely have we encountered a character so wittily sophisticated, full of live with complicated demons lurking under the surface.
The title of the novel, interestingly enough, comes from Hemingway's classic novel, A Farewell to Arms, in which a soldier fighting in WWI notes "I have made a separate peace" with the enemy he is fighting. A poignant title that has much relevance to the themes that Knowles explores.
Ultimately, this novel questions our responsibility for our own actions.....something we all need reminding of now and then.