Customer Reviews: A Separate Peace
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on June 12, 2000
In this darkly beautiful novel, John Knowles takes the reader on a journey, and it is no ordinary journey. 'A Separate Peace' plumbs the remote depths of the human heart--and it will take courage to face what is there.
This is, first and foremost, a character story. Gene and Finny are central to the plot, and to this end the author develops the characters with piercing clarity. Finny's genuineness sets him apart from his peers, Gene included, who tend to act more in accordance with the way they think would be acceptable to others, instead of what is acceptable to themselves. Finny follows his heart in all his ways, and his achievements are a reflection of his love for life. In contrast, Gene is repressed, his achievements based on what others believe to be important. As a result, they are of no importance to him, because he sees himself to be lacking that unique, genuine quality.
The friendship which develops between Gene and Finny is beautifully drawn, woven with skill into the mundanity of everyday existence. The tragic turn it takes sends the rest of the plot, though outwardly inocuous, hurtling toward disaster and a darkness beyond imagining. 'A Separate Peace' explores the evil in the human heart, using this tale of betrayal as a parallel to the war raging in the world at the same time. While this may invite comparison with 'Lord of the Flies', they are in fact extremely different. 'Lord of the Flies' contends that humans are evil by nature. In 'A Separate Peace', humanity is shown to have a dark side, the cause of tremendous horror and suffering. And yet, there is hope offered in this book for humanity. Evil is not the be-all and end-all of our existence. For even as Gene must confront the evil within himself, a light shines through: the genuine love he has for his friend. Which is why Finny wept at the end of the book--not for himself, but for the betrayal of that loyalty and love which he had always known existed.
This only scratches the surface of the depth to be found in this masterpiece. However, I don't recommend over-analyzing the metaphors and similies and whatnot. I read this book without a class or a teacher, did not learn the significance of the metaphors, and probably for this reason more than anything else, loved the book. For the teachers who disparage the book as 'too boring'--perhaps if you would try to see the book as something more than an exercise in metaphors, both you and your students would benefit. The true power of this book lies in its clear rendering of the immensity and the frailty of human nature, the many shadings of light and dark which together create a human being. In the author's own words, this book penetrates to "that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth."
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It has been said that A Separate Peace is the quintessential coming of age novel. That may quite be so. I certainly could not argue against that statement. That being said, I will say that this is one fine bit of smooth, restrained writing. The sentence structure, syntax and flow is some of the best to be found. If for no other reason, it should be studied for that reason alone. I note that there are quite a few critical and negative reviews on this one, for the most part, from kids who have been forced to read it in class. I, myself, probably would not assign this work to a general class in High School. I can remember from my school day, that anything that had the word "classic" attached, made m eyes roll to the back of my head before I even opened the cover of the book. An honors class, perhaps. This, at first glance, is a very simple book, but it is so much more. There are so many levels found in this work that it is actually rather difficult to track all of them with just one reading. I also feel that many of our young folks today would have problems relating to the setting and the situation addressed in this work. The subjects studied by the school boys of that day alone and at the level they studied them, would be difficult to find in any of our schools today. After all, it was published fifty years ago and times they have been changing. On the other hand, the emotions addressed in this work have been with us since the beginning of time and always will be. To the argument that it is a coming of age book written by another old white guy. This is true. Authors should write about what they know. The author was an old white guy, ergo, a coming of age book about a rich white kid. I am an old white guy and would never think about writing a novel about the life of a young Hispanic man living in this day and age. That would be silly as I would not have a clue. Knowles is a good story teller and a fine writer. I liked and enjoyed this work when it was first published and could well relate to the character at that time. I am old now, do not so much relate to the young man in the book, but certainly can relate to the old man telling the story. I do have to agree with another reviewer in that some of the pages in this book are absolutely hilarious, a fact often overlooked. All in all, recommend this one highly.
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on January 20, 2000
A Separate Peace displays a tale of two best friends sharing the times of their lives while at boarding school. John Knowles displays the hardships that high school boys face away from home during World War II. The lessons learned, their independence, and the security they discover can never be forgotten in a time of war and fear. Many people can relate to Knowles' central theme of friendship. I thoroughly enjoyed A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. The fact that I also attend boarding school helped me relate to the novel. Although the plot is not filled with lengthy adventures and exciting climaxes, if one can read between the lines and view the book for its real meaning, he or she is sure to enjoy it. One must be able to see through that thin barrier that blocks the emotions from leaping off the page, and look into Gene and Finny's hearts. It's difficult to be dependent on oneself at such a young age. Finny and Gene form a unique bond and help each other survive tough times. While Gene doubts Finny on occasion, deep down he relies on Finny's constant support and humor to get through troublesome times. When Finny's love for sports and competitiveness ends in an accident, Gene is left to live with the reality of that eventful night. The book's controversy deals with Gene's battle with the truth and Finny's acceptance of it. A Separate Peace proves that trust and friendship can take years to develop and an instant to destroy.
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on December 14, 2000
My freshman Honors English teacher had us read this book recently. Since I'd read it before, I thought I was in for the same old ride. But reading it a second time helped me pick up on a lot of things I had missed before. Yes, at times the book can become rather tedious. But the imagery that Knowles creates is just amazing. My teacher explained some of the symbolism parts of the book to me. The tree is an example of the tree in the Garden of Eden. It was a fall from innocence. But now for all you people who haven't read the book yet, I'll tell you a little background information. It's about a prep school in the north, where young students are attending and waiting for when they too will be shipped off to fight in World War II. It starts in the summertime with two friends, Gene, a quite and conserved academically minded boy, and Finny, the outgoing, friendly, and all around big man on campus. They seem complete opposites and yet they form a tight bond. And then something happens. And it changes their lives forever. And when Gene returns to Devon in the fall, everything is different. There is a lot more to this book then on the surface, almost like the characters. If you dig around a little deeper, you will find a book that is truly a gem.
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on August 1, 2009
I have my eighth-grade English students read a variety of texts throughout the year. If a student says, "I didn't like it," I have no problem with that (taste is subjective, after all), but I do require them to understand it. Often, people will not "like" something because they don't understand it. If they don't indicate they actually understand the text, then their indifference, dislike or detestation is unfounded. When we discuss a book in class, I find that the students who didn't like the book start to understand it, and, a large majority of them at least, start to like it (to varying degrees). A SEPARATE PEACE is the perfect book to prove this idea.

Part of the problem is giving this book to kids too early in their lives. In elementary school, books are plot heavy; in high school, books are heavy on character. If adolescents don't make a proper adjustment from plot- to character-heavy novels, a book like A SEPARATE PEACE feels like a kick in the gut and a punch in the face at the same time. This immensely character-heavy book is torture for people who aren't mentally acclimated to or ready for such depth.

This is a book that requires contemplation and, perhaps, re-reading. I highly recommend that you find a way to discuss this book with someone else. Questions will arise; debate may ensue; thinking will take place. Why did Gene do what he did? Why and how do we compare ourselves to others? Do we tend to remember events accurately or in the way we wish to remember them? How did Gene and Phinney really feel about each other? Why does Phinney not care about winning? What does Leper's meltdown say about character? About war? About peace? What does the title mean? These are not questions that have easy answers, but reveal character in a way that some students may be uncomfortable with.

I highly recommend this book for those who are ready for it. For others, it will be difficult to get through without feeling bored, lost or angry. Perhaps A SEPARATE PEACE says more about the reader than it does about the characters.
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on February 3, 2000
A Separate Peace by John Knowles is a classic about two friends, Finny and Gene, who live at a boarding school during World War II. An instant classic, John Knowles takes the reader into a place that few have been to, inside the mind of an insecure adolescent, and lets the reader experience emotions that s/he might not in their day to day lives. A Separate Peace also explores how the common insecurities of a person might send him or her into a pit of evil that s/he might never recover from. Using well-developed characters and a plot that most anybody can relate to in some way, John Knowles makes A Separate Peace a novel that everybody should read. Normally, I won't go near a book if there isn't some sort of war or mass violence throughout the book. So when told to read A Separate Peace as an assignment, I was naturally reluctant to do so. I did enjoy reading this novel, once I got into it, despite the fact that it started off fairly slowly and there were points where putting it down was like relieving myself of a heavy weight on my shoulders. I soon realized that all of the boring and seemingly useless descriptions actually played a major role as the plot progressed and could not be ignored. Living at boarding school, I can personally relate to some of the emotions Gene feels through the book. After a while, I could not put the book down at all, and finished reading far ahead of when I was assigned to be finished reading. I do intend to go back and read this again when I have the time. A perfect novel for rainy days, summer nights or just when one has the free time, A Separate Peace by John Knowles is a classic for generations to come.
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on October 10, 2000
This summer i was assigned to read A Separate Peace for outside reading. I have very busy summers and I don't like to read that much. I thought I would just bore my way through this book like I've always done before with other summer reading books. As I started this book though, I got more and more into it and really started to enjoy it. The main character of this book is Gene Forrester. He is telling us the story in his point of view which is first person. He has gone back to the school, Devon, after fifteen years to try to put what happened there behind him so he could go on with his life. Gene shows us that there is evil lurking every where because we see the potential of evil in the human heart through him. Finny is another very important character. Gene and him are best friends though two very different people. Finny has trouble in school but is excellent on any playing field and is almost too perfect. While we see evil and jealousy through Gene, all we see is honesty, innocense, and loyalty from Finny. The story takes place in the school Devon. Devon is an example of a small microcosm, which is a small world contained in itself. The war is going on outside the school while there is a small war going on under the surface at Devon. Gene is jealous of Finny and thinks Finny feels the same way but he finds out that he doesn't and that Finny is too good to be jealous. There is a tree which they jump from. This tree symbolizes the tree of knowledge and Gene's loss of innocense. As Gene and Finny were on the tree about to make the first double jump, Gene made Finny lose his balance and fall to the ground crushing his leg. Finny falls physically while Gene falls mentally and spiritually. Finny will never be able to play sports again or go to the war and he doesn't know that Gene caused the accident. Gene and Finny are still very good friends but there are many things throughout the story that foreshadows a trial that brings out the truth. Brinker sets up the trial and the truth wouldn't have come out except for Leper. Leper was a shy guy that kept mainly to himself. He had to gone to the war and became crazy. Leper was the only one that had seen Gene make Finny fall from the tree. When Leper was testifying Finny ran out of the room and fell down the stairs breaking his leg again. As Finny was in surgery, a piece of bone marrow got into his blood stream and stopped his heart which killed him. Gene feels like it is his funeral when he attends Finny's because he realizes that he caused Finny's death. I thought the author did a very good job writing this book. He shows us the potential of evil in the human heart and many other things. Many people can relate what has happened in this book to something that has happened to them. The author also did a very good job foreshadowing which keeps us reading and interested.
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on January 20, 2010
Walking down the aisles of a bookstore or a library and encountering a book called A Separate Peace, flipping open the cover and noting that the copyright is dated 1959, it would not be much of an intuitive leap for the reader to guess that the subject matter involved war. The reader would be right, though he or she could not possibly intuit the richly layered tale that unfolds as pages turn, one by one, between the front and the back cover.

Set in an all male and very exclusive high school academy (Devon), this boarding school drama takes place in late 1942 and early 1943. Though populated with a rich assortment of characters, the book revolves predominantly around only two, Gene and Phineas (Finny). Attending a summer session at Devon, Gene and Finny form the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, and the two charter members seal their friendship by leaping from a tree into a river. The tree, the origin of the cornerstone event that anchors the novel, is "tremendous, an irate steely black steeple beside the river." In this tree, while attempting the dangerous leap into deep water on two separate occasions, both Gene and Finny will lose their balance. In one instance, a steady hand shoots out to save the other friend. In the other, no hand is forthcoming, and the friend plunges downward towards an injury that will permanently alter the life course of both boys. This fall is the polar axis upon which John Knowles, author of one of the most unusual of all books written about wars, be they personal or political, allows his tale to revolve.

Only distantly related to the genre of anti-war books, A Separate Peace does not have the gritty and blasted geography of trench warfare in All Quiet on the Western Front, the brilliant cynicism and satire of Catch-22, or the surrealistic and all TOO realistic horror of Slaughterhouse-Five. Knowles' approach to human on human violence, be it two individuals in combat or millions against millions, is subtle, almost understated. After listening to two of his friends debate about the causes of WW II, Gene dissents: "Because it seems 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." Why might Gene's statement be important? Because it disallows us the convenience of separating people that fight wars into good folk and evil monsters. Alexander Solzhenitsyn chimes in here "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

Knowles, a winner of the Penn/Faulkner Award, was a brilliant observer of human nature. It is somewhat eerie to see the close correlation of his observations with cutting edge 21st century advances in the nature of human memory and the biological roots of aggressive human behavior (including war). Recent research has made it compellingly clear that we humans are able to freely construct memories that are more consistent with the personal narratives that we want to tell ourselves than they are with accurate depiction of past events. In the recently published Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, Potts and Hayden discuss the research that shows that our primate roots have left "something ignorant in the human heart", something uniquely male in nature. John Knowles, through simple observation, beat Potts and Hayden to the punch by a half century.

Several brief thoughts, if you are considering reading this book. This is a book about men, and the few women that appear are almost ghost-like. Though written more than fifty years ago, the level of craftsmanship and wordsmithing in A Separate Piece has not been surpassed in the 21st century. Although the story is engaging, connoisseurs of prose will find it much more to their liking than will aficionados of action novels. Historical fiction buffs will get a kick both from the powerfully nostalgic description of war-time America and from the fact that characters in the book are reportedly modeled on well known people, e.g. Gore Vidal (one of Knowles' classmates in real life) claims that he was the model for the Devon upperclassman Brinker. Not a page turner, but deeply evocative for those with the leisure to let the ebb and flow of Knowles' prose wash gently over them, A Separate Piece has become defined as a classic. This reader agrees wholeheartedly with that designation.
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on July 15, 1998
John Knowles's eloquent and observative style make this novel a complete gem. This touching and beautiful story is set mostly in Devon, an old New England school during World War II. Every character is so well portraited, you'll understand them perfectly if your acute mind makes the effort. Someone who reviewed A Separate Peace here said the friendship between Gene and Phineas 's not realistic. I have to disagree; when you're living with the constant fear Gene's living with, you begin to alienate the world around you. Gene's tormenting insecurities lead him to hurt his best friend even though he loves him more than in any usual friendship, and I wish I could say where exactly in the book this is proved, but I'd spoil it for those who haven't read it. Like in other John Knowles novels, the main character, this time Gene, is extremely complex. Something else you have to understand when reading this book is that Phineas is an extraordinary human being. He is a! ! leader; he has a pure heart and always follows his own path. I could sit here all night discussing the book, but instead I'll just tell you that I'm a very picky reader, but I extremely recommend this novel to anyone in search of a masterpiece. This might as well be my favorite book...
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on August 23, 2000
(There are a few spoilers so if you haven't read the book and don't want it ruined, don't read!) I really can't believe that some people, even teachers (though it was a history teacher, not an English one), can't find the deeper meaning in this book. It was given one star by many because of Knowles' impeccable attention to detail and allusion, while this, for me, is what makes much of the book. It takes sheer brilliance to masterfully wrap sentences around one another as Knowles does, by making allusions to culture and society like describing trees as Republican and the wonderful descriptions of New England scenery.
The storyline is told in flashback by Gene Forrester, an intellectual (by 90's (or 00's?) terms, a nerd) who forms the unlikely friendship (during the beginning of American's involvement in World War II) with the daring Phineas. Phineas has, at times, seemingly complete control over Gene, even in his eventual death and demise. The paranoia and partial mental breakdown that Gene goes through is no doubt directly parallelled with Phineas' health as well as other characters in the novel.
The novel also proves the point that was shown with the masterful film American Beauty; it shows that we're not all perfect - most of as are, as illustrated here, far from it - but what counts is what you do in any particular moment and how it affects others in that particular time. What matters is, since no one is perfect, being perfect enough; beauty, as well as perfection, is a relative term. Alan Ball must have read A Separate Peace before writing American Beauty; both so clearly show the states and effects of beauty, as well as actions. With the exception of, possibly, Phineas, no one in this novel is perfect. We find flaws of all sizes in not only Gene but Brinker, Elwin "Leper" Lepellier, and many other students at the school, Devon, in New Hampshire.
This is only a general overview of the book; read it yourself to find out all the details, this is a review, not cliff's notes.
Also, like its characters, the book is not perfect. At times his formerly masterful descriptions can turn into slight rambling and over-the-top, unnecessary details, but it's still worth the read; the details are much more appreciated once you've read the entire thing.
4.5/5 Stars
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