Review: A Separate Peace by John Knowles


Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: April, 2000
Read Count: 3

I read this book back when I was much younger, too young to have been able to gleam the many arguably obvious innuendos in the text, and at first read, I’d thought it was a tragic story about friendship, competition, and the usual turmoils of (male) adolescence. I also thought the book was quite slow and dull at times and that some expositions were too nostalgic and saccharin in tone and the main characters not entirely believable. But then again, maybe they are believable to people who went to private schools in New England.

I read this book again some years later for high school and still thought it was too nostalgic and that it portrayed a shallow account of competitive friendship. Then a good friend (who read too much fan fiction) clued me in on the various homoerotic subtexts and showed me other ways to read this book–hunting for subtext in this book could very well be a dangerous drinking game–and that made all the difference. Suddenly, it was as though I had been sitting in a dark room for a very long time and someone finally pulled the drapes aside to let some light in.

And then college happened and I had to read this book again, but this time the reading was geared toward parsing out the subtext. And those were good times indeed.

A Separate Peace was ahead of its time in that its subject matter is subtle yet visible, but exactly like other books of its time, it doesn’t deal with it directly. The interactions between Gene and Finny are often seen and interpreted–or dismissed–as an average turbulent friendship, but there’s a certain dynamic between these two that’s undeniable. Since the story is from Gene’s POV, we don’t get to know if the feeling’s reciprocated.

So American high schools have been teaching this book for the last–I don’t know–forty years, maybe, and no one’s been allowed to mention the subtext at all. That’s quite disturbing, and it highlights how painfully repressed we still are as a society.


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