The Thursday Night Book Club lost one of its own last year after a loyal member of the group passed away suddenly in July. When the group next met, we decided to read a book in her memory. From conversations I had with her earlier in 2018, I knew that one of her most-loved novels was John Knowles' classic coming-of-age story A Separate Peace. And so on Thursday, January 17th the Thursday Night Book Club gathered to discuss the book. Set in the fictional Devon School (a thinly-disguised Phillips Exeter Academy) during the 1942-1943 school year and the summer that precedes it, A Separate Peace is the story of Gene Forrester and his roommate Finny. Finny is charming, confident and athletic, the kind of popular student who breaks the rules and gets away with it. Gene, introverted and academic, loves Finny and also envies and resents him. After Finny falls from a tree and badly breaks his leg, Gene struggles with the guilt he feels about the role he played in Finny's accident. And World War II looms large in the lives of Gene, Finny and all their classmates; even when it is not being discussed, it's a constant presence and a reminder of what sits just outside the school's bubble. "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 things should be thought of as minor and inevitable mishaps in the accelerating rush. The air around us was filled with much worse things." In illustrating the fine line between love and hate, between closest friends and worst enemies, A Separate Peace is an evocative novel about the headiness and intensity of adolescent friendships set against the backdrop of World War II.
John Knowles was born in Fairmont, West Virginia in 1926. He entered Phillips Exeter Academy when he was 15 and graduated in 1945. He served in the Air Force's Aviation Cadet Program for eight months before beginning college. Knowles received a B.A. from Yale University in 1949. After graduation, he spent ten years working as a freelance journalist for the Hartford Courant and for Holiday, a travel magazine. A Separate Peace was published in 1959. It won the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel and was nominated for the National Book Award. During the 1960s, Knowles was writer-in-residence at both Princeton University and the University of North Carolina. He wrote eight additional novels, including a sequel to A Separate Peace called Peace Breaks Out, Phineas: Six Stories and one work of non fiction (Double Vision; American Thoughts Abroad). John Knowles died in 2001.
The Thursday Night Book Club had a lot to say about A Separate Peace, and most of it focused on Gene and Finny, on their personalities, on their individual characteristics, on their friendship and on the tragedy that upends their lives. There was a wide range of views about the motivations that drove them both, about their inherent natures, their best and worst qualities, and the complicated elements that made up their friendship. Although the discussion kept returning to Finny's fall from the tree, we did not reach any real consensus about whether Gene acted intentionally in causing Finny's accident, and we acknowledged that we'd likely never know. We tried to imagine what it would be like to be a student in wartime, safe and separate from the fighting but aware that school would likely end before the war did. "Preserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well-known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn't even known it was there. Because, unfamiliar with the absence of fear and what that was like, I had not been able to identify its presence." Several people noticed the lack of women in the novel, along with the lack of diversity and the lack of adults, apart from a few fleeting glimpses of teachers and one compelling scene with the school doctor. And many expressed admiration and a bit of awe over the quality and power of Knowles' writing. With the memory of our missing member hovering over the discussion, the Thursday Night Book Club did her proud in the depth of their engagement with and appreciation for her favorite novel.
Join us on Thursday, February 21st when we will be discussing They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine. Copies of the book are available at the Information Desk.