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07 November 2018

Book Review: A Separate Peace

A Separate PeaceA Separate Peace by John Knowles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know when I first read this. One assumes I did as a pre-teen or a teen, but I don't remember reading it. I don't remember any specifics. All I knew is that the battered paperback I hauled around with me for 25 years always made me smile every time I would go through books to get rid of them.

And I never got rid of this one.

But, why? Why did it make me smile?

So I read it again.

And, frankly, I expected to be disappointed. I had read several reader reviews here, lambasting how horrible this book is. The hundreds of comments agreeing with some of the most negative of the reviews. The one thread on which the adults who hated this book as a teen gang up on the one or two current teens who piped up to say they liked it.

As divisive as our current political landscape, apparently.

So let me weigh in.

I LOVED it. Again. And one more time. LOVED.

It's ponderous. It's a little foreign, in that I am not a male teen in 1942 at a boarding school. But, you know, I'm also not a British teen wizard. Or a teen archery expert living in a dystopian future. I don't have to directly relate to the situations to directly relate to the characters.

But even though I did relate to the characters, it was really the writing that really made me love it. Not the story. Not the conflict. But the writing. The power. The force of description. The insight.

"cobblestones heaving underfoot like a bricked-over ocean squall"

"Until now, in spite of everything, I had welcomed each new day as though it were a new life, where all past problems and failures were erased, and all future possibilities and joys open and available, to be achieved probably before night fell again. Now, in this winter snow and crutches with Phineas, I began to know that each morning reasserted the problems of the night before, that sleep suspended all but changed nothing, that you couldn't make yourself over between dawn and dusk."

"'What I mean is, I love winter, and when you really love something then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love.' I didn't really think that this was true, my seventeen years of experience had shown this to be much more false than true, but it was like every thought and belief of Finny's: it should have been true."

"Dr. Stanpole's car was at the top of it, headlights on and motor running, empty. I idly considered stealing it, in the way that people idly consider many crimes it would be possible for them to commit. I took an academic interest in the thought of stealing the car, knowing all the time that it would be not so much criminal as meaningless, a lapse into nothing, an escape into nowhere."

"The old phrase about 'If these walls could only speak' occurred to me and I felt it more deeply than anyone has ever felt it, I felt that the stadium could not only speak but that its words could hold me spellbound. In fact the stadium did speak powerfully and at all times, including this moment. But I could not hear, and that was because I did not exist."

"We members of the class of 1943 were moving very fast toward the war now, so fast that there were casualties even before we reached it, a mind was clouded and a leg was broken--maybe these should be thought of as minor and inevitable mishaps in the accelerating rush. The air around us was filled with much worse things."

"Finny...you wouldn't be any good in the war, even if nothing had happened to your leg ... They'd get you some place at the front and there'd be a lull in the fighting, and the next thing anyone knew you'd be over with the Germans or the Japs, asking if they'd like to field a baseball team against our side. You'd be sitting in one of their command posts, teaching them English. Yes, you'd get confused and borrow one of their uniforms, and you'd lend them one of yours. Sure, that's just what would happen. You'd get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight anymore. You'd make a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war."

"The advance guard which came down the street from the railroad station consisted of a number of Jeeps, being driven with a certain restraint, their gyration-prone wheels inactive on these old ways which offered nothing bumpier than a few cobblestones. I thought the Jeeps looked noticeably uncomfortable from all the power they were not being allowed to use. There is no stage you comprehend better than the one you have just left, and as I watched the Jeeps almost asserting a wish to bounce up the side of Mount Washington at eighty miles an hour instead of rolling along this dull street, they reminded me, in a comical and poignant way, of adolescents."

"...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."

I'm really glad I've been hauling this around for 25 years. I'm going to haul it around for at least 25 more.

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