147 of 155 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enter the darkness
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...
Published on June 12, 2000 by Ilana Teitelbaum
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Seperate Peaces
Sort of as cross between Catcher in the Rye and The Red Badge of Courage, this was not a book on my list of assignments during Jr.and Sr. high school, but over the years it had come to my attention as one that could have been, so it came time to check it out.
Other reviews on this site have covered a lot about the story, and what it may or may not have meant, so...
Published on May 6, 2002 by Stanley M. Gilbert
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Separate Peace,
A Separate Peace by John Knowles is based during World War II in New England. If you can't interpret literature, this book may not be for you. If you are good at reading between the lines there is a better chance of your enjoying this book. It is about two teenagers, Gene and Phineas, who are good friends. However, an extreme jealousy between the two holds their friendship back. Literal level readers may be bored by the lack of action; there is not an overwhelming amount of activity in the 196 page novel. You will find a plethora of themes and connections to life and human nature in this novel. Because of its war setting, there is an omnipresent war theme. Nature plays a large part as well as biblical meaning and loss of innocence. A Separate Peace is full of universal references. The literature is supposed to teach all of the human race more about both ourselves and others. Characterization is done particularly well in the book. War has a double meaning as Gene takes on the role of the human race and the basic feelings and instincts of all people. Phineas is the "perfect" world that everyone would like to live in. There appears to be a character to cover the entire diverse world. Imagery may be another reason to read A Separate Peace. You will like the personification, war imagery, and the theme of nature that is brought out in the book. Overall, John Knowles has put together a nice piece of very relevant literature in A Separate Peace. The only drawbacks would be in the sometimes difficult messages and occasionally low suspense parts in the novel. It also has a slightly slow beginnig. I general, I would recommend reading this novel to readers of all age groups.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A SEPARATE PEACE,
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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my all-time favorite books,
A freshman English staple, it's easy to dismiss A SEPARATE PEACE as just another school book, but it's one of the classics which are classic for a reason. It's a wonderful example of an author's being perfectly suited to his subject--which seems like a no-brainer but often is a problem. Knowles' writing is beautiful, simple, and powerful, and his characters are so well-developed, even in such a short novel, that they're as close to real people as fiction allows. Phineas--who is, as far as I can recall, the only character without a surname--is an ideal hero; a Greek god without the hamartia of hubris. Rather, Finny's flaw is that he is noble enough to trust the nobility of others.
The book takes place at Devon School during World War II, at first the "summer session," new to Devon for this year, when all eyes are on the sixteen-year-old boys: old enough to be nearing adulthood, but young enough not to fear being drafted. The narrator, Gene Forrester, recalls the summer in an almost idealized manner, but not enough to leave out the trace of bitterness that was his jealously toward his best friend and roommate, Phineas. The latter session, the winter session of what I believe is their senior year (that part is a little confusing, but by the boys' ages--seventeen and eighteen--it should be their senior year), is much darker, dwelling more on the jealousy and guilt which Gene feels. Even then, with his glorious "Winter Carnival," Phineas tries to brighten the mood, but it is not to be. The plot rises to a horrifying climax and then falls over tragedy and reaches a very satisfying, but saddening, conclusion.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An English Teacher's Perspective!,
Having taught this book several times as an English teacher, I've certainly had my exposure to it. My view of the novel has certainly changed over time, as I've come to regard the novel for all of its beauty. I strike a single star from its score simply because I don't believe the book has aged well; it is not accessible and applicable to contemporary America like it was to the generation of adolescents who could still remember that there was such a thing as World War II and that it wasn't almost as long ago as Noah's flood. To today's teenagers, it comes across as cheesy. This is truly a shame, suggesting we have reached a period in history in which the naiveté of youth has been obliterated. But then, that is what the novel is about, and perhaps it has grown even more meaningful today. Instead of reading this text as a commentary on individual maturation and the rites of passage associated with it, A Separate Peace must be viewed as a commentary on the development of Modern America, a country that has grown much like Gene, made mistakes like Gene, and has come to realize a state of experience and worldliness that is a far cry from its origins.
The value of Knowles' novel lies, moreover, in its accessibility as an instructional tool. His use of metaphor and symbolism yields easy discussion to the work's major themes and concepts. It lacks scope in the its single-minded attention to Caucasian males does not lend itself toward all classrooms, ethnicities, or school districts, but for those two whom it may hold some relevance, there is a great deal to learn from it. A Separate Peace shows ordinary teenagers encountering and engaging in the same foibles I see my students make on a daily basis. There is something about Gene that is ubiquitous in all of us, and there is much that can be derived from his narrative.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A LETTER TO MR. KNOWLES IF HE'S STILL ALIVE,
By A Customer
Dear John Knowles:
One of the most compelling and interesting novels I have read was your: A Separate Peace. Not only did it present a heart felt story of a boy experiencing high school during a war, it also raised certain issues, such as making the best of bad times. The association between adolescents and an ongoing world war in your story, shows your understanding of the teenage life. Being an adolescent, I can relate to the story. Although I have never experienced a war, I have fought through numerous trials and tribulations along side my friends and have grown a bond with them as strong as brotherhood. I want to compliment you on the story itself. I particularly enjoyed the dramatic scenes, especially the scene where Phineas breaks his leg in an attempt to jump from the tree. Each scene led to the other and drew me into the book even more as I kept reading. One of the reasons this was so, was that I felt as if I had been reading my own experiences. Roughly four years ago, my friend by the name of Ed and I were playing games associated with wars which was very similar to the "biltzball" game played by Gene, Phineas, and the rest of the kids at Devon. Our game consisted of a tennis ball, which was thrown at the nearest person to whoever had possession of the ball. When one was hit, he or she would become the thrower and the enemy to all the other children, as we ran and tried to avoid getting hit. One summer evening, my friend and I gathered all of the children in our neighborhood and convinced them to join us in our game. Being the competitive person that he was, Ed went to the limits to protect himself from getting hit with the tennis ball. On that particular day, I happened to have possession of the ball and ran after the other children in order to have a better chance of hitting them. Trying to hide from me, Ed climbed a tall tree toward which I was running to. As I reached the tree, I noticed that he was on the highest limb, which was about twelve feet high. With all my might I tossed the tennis ball toward him. In order to get out of the way, Ed suddenly jumped to the branch next to him but missed his landing and fell awkwardly on his right leg. His doctor announced that he had fractured his leg and that he might never be able to use it again. Without warning, I was given news that him and his family had moved to a different state. I was traumatized in disbelief and blamed myself for the incident for weeks. Fortunately, I got over this tragedy. As you can see, my story is very similar to yours, in that the experiences Gene and Phineas had. Although Ed did not die as Phineas did toward the end of the story, he has left me for good as Phineas left Gene. One of the messages I received from reading your novel is that one can always make the best of bad times. At the time of the story, World War II was in progress. I can imagine the depression that American families were in as their sons went off to fight for their country. However, instead of living their lives in sorrow Gene and Phineas found peace in the lives they lived at Devon high school. They seemed to disregard the war and live life as if there was no war, although it was on their minds. I believe that life itself would not be, without making the best of such times. Life is full of problems and depression. How can one live life to its fullest extent if they are always burdened with problems and let their problems get the best of them? After reading this novel, I sat and thought about this message and figured that it is indeed true. This was such a well written story that I have nothing bad to say about it. I recommend it to people of all ages and cannot wait to read one of your other novels.
Sincerely, Hakop Nalbandyan
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Line Runs Through the Human Heart,
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.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a powerful message,
By A Customer
i read many of the other reviews posted for this book. there is obviously a discrepancy between readers who adored it and others who hated it. it is not a novel filled with pages of action, and yet it is gripping nevertheless. this is a psychological book, one which paints a portrait of the human mind. it is exciting and startling in the revelations that it produces about ourselves. therefore, it is easy to see why the book could be considered boring if the reader is not taking the time to look into their own mind and grasp the disquieting similarities between themselves and the characters in the novel. set against the backdrop of war, i think the author's message is that the blind spot, the jealousy, the darkness in gene's head which makes him commit that one-split second decision is the same darkness which creates humanity's greatest suffering - war. this book challenges us to look into ourselves and see that fear for what it truly is. often, it is a fear of an enemy who doesn't even exist. until we can deal with that fear, we shall never be without war and suffering. i would encourage those readers who found this book to be boring to try it again in a few years. perhaps this is not a book which should be required reading for everyone. however, i think the message of the book is one which should be understood by everyone.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From The Marrow of His Bones: Brillantly Written But Slightly Flawed Portrait of Friendship and Rivalry,
Published in 1959, John Knowles' A SEPARATE PEACE is loosely based on the author's experiences while a student at Exter Academy during the 1940s--and tells the story of two students, Phineas and Gene, who strike up an unlikely but intense friendship that leads unexpectedly to tragedy and untimely death. It was extremely well-received by critics and public alike and is considered a minor classic of modern American literature, a frequent fixture on high school and university must-read lit studies lists.
A fairly short work, A SEPARATE PEACE can be easily read from cover to cover in the course of two or three hours--but I wouldn't recommend doing so. Some novels should not be rushed, and this is one of them; Knowles' lyric style requires a certain patience to develop fully in the reader's mind and the almost ghostly manner in which he handles the novel's themes of friendship, rivalry, ethics, and morality requires a fair amount of thought.
Gene, the novel's narrator, returns to Devon Academy, a private school he attended as a teenager during World War II. He hopes the visit will allow him to face the truth of and find meaning in the past--and he vividly recalls his relationship with school friend and roommate Phineas, a gifted athlete and charismatic eccentric whose charm encouraged his fellow students to numerous risky activities. Chief among these are a dangerous dive from a tree branch into the river, a dive that gradually acquires a ritualistic nature and ultimate gives rise to tragedy.
The nature of the tragedy involved drives the action of the novel. Who is morally weak and who is morally strong? How much can Gene--and we--ascribe to accident and circumstance and impulse and how much arises from free will? Who is actually responsible? There are no easy answers.
In both tone and story A SEPARATE PEACE seems to draw from three earlier masterpieces: F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920 THIS SIDE OF PARADISE and 1925 THE GREAT GATSBY and Evelyn Waugh's 1945 BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. All three of these are lyical in tone; both PARADISE and BRIDESHEAD present young men in academic settings; and PEACE is quite similar in conclusion to GATSBY, both novels ending without a clear moral center and leaving the reader to sort of the meaning of the story in much the same way the characters must.
This was Knowles' first novel, and in some respects his inexperience shows: at certain points, most notably Gene's visit to Leper's Vermont home and the impromptu student court, the construction feels forced and artificial, as if Knowles recognized these moments had to occur for the sake of the story but didn't quite know how to go about writing them. That aside, however, the style of writing is remarkable eloquent, the prose possessing a poetic quality that is remarkably fine. The conclusion never fully resolves the relationship between Gene and Phineas, never fully answers the questions it raises, and as such has a remarkably haunting quality.
I personally A SEPARATE PEACE an often-brilliant piece of writing; I also suspect it is a novel that holds up extremely well to re-reading. At the same time, however, I confess I also found it slightly over-rated. There is a very fine line between narrative vagueness that inspires thought and narrative vagueness that is simply vague, and Knowles too often edges into the latter. Recommended, but perhaps best regarded as a slightly flawed "art" novel.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very fine book--for adults,
As an adult, rereading this classic was an eye-opening pleasure. I don't understand why it's a standard requirement in US high schools. The narrator is an adult looking back at his prep school days; it is written from an adult point of view and, I believe, should be viewed as adult literature. The lovely writing comprises poetical descriptions and subtle characterizations that are beyond the grasp of kids. No wonder so many are bored by this book!
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars MASTERFUL DETAILS, "Look Closer.."..4.5/5 Stars,
(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.
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Separate Peace by John Knowles (Hardcover - Aug. 1967)
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