A Separate Peace begins with Gene, the narrator, returning to the boys school where he spent his formative years. As he introduces the reader to the various buildings and features of the school, you get the sense that he has not simply returned to the school to reminisce, but to lay to rest something that he has lived with for many years.
After a few pages, the story hits flashback mode and never really returns to the present. Gene begins to tell the story of Devon School, and more importantly, the story of his friendship with Phineas. Finny and Gene were roommates and close friends, but in many ways they were polar opposites. Finny was athletic and magnanimous, while Gene was neither. Gene received good marks in his classes, while Finny struggled just to pass – often Gene did Finny's homework for him. Although the two were friends, they were also competitive with each other, in a passive aggressive way. As the competition between the two increases, it puts a strain on their friendship. Across the Atlantic, World War II is raging, but the latent one-upmanship between Finny and Gene is just as real of a battle.
With A Separate Peace, John Knowles is saying just as much about the War and the nature of war, as he is about the lives of teenage boys. Knowles makes it clear that the older boys got, the more diligently they were primed for combat. The seniors at Devon School spent a lot of time in physical training, expected to enlist after graduation, or be drafted. The specter of war hung over this New England boys school, permeating the student’s minds and the curriculum alike.
A Separate Peace is beautifully written and laden with vivid, true-to-life characters. The pacing of the book is excellent. It moves along at an even keel, toward a conclusion that is not forgone, but at the same time not necessarily unexpected.
As a side note, I have to believe that John Irving was influenced by this book when writing A Prayer for Owen Meany.