A Separate Peace by John Knowles: B

From the back cover:
Set in an exclusive boys’ school in the summer of ’42, A Separate Peace offers a quietly told story of the relationship between two boys. Under the surface though, violent thoughts and feelings lurk, mirroring events in the outside world. It is these deeper levels of meaning that have made the novel an enduring classic of American literature.

Through the adolescent eyes of Gene, an introverted intellectual, we are shown the world of the Devon School. The campus and its residents appear to be untouched by the realities of war. Phineas, a charismatic daredevil athlete, embodies a careless optimism as he leads the boys in seemingly innocent games. Schoolboy capers, though, turn dark, and perhaps inevitably, the war slowly permeates the boys’ lives.

I remembered really liking this whatever year that was I was required to read it for school, but now I have mixed feelings.

The crux of the problem is that I don’t particularly like either Gene or Phineas. Gene initially comes across as borderline nutso, obsessively in love with Phineas and always comparing himself against him and suspecting Phineas of plotting against him. He even dons his clothes at one point in a very The Talented Mr. Ripley moment. Phineas is genial enough, and I like him better as the story progresses, but he’s one of those playful manipulator types who goad non-troublemaking sorts into participating in their activities, and I find those people irritating.

Eventually, though, one begins to think maybe Gene isn’t crazy, but a typical mixed-up stupid teen driven by impulses he doesn’t understand. Maybe he’s just the product of the competitive atmosphere of an all-boys’ school, where no one wants to be caught out falling for a trick, where everyone is always on guard and suspicious of sincerity lest they lose face with the rest of the group.

Soon, some of their classmates begin to change as they confront the reality of the war in their lives, a fact they’d been able to deny in the summer when they were still sixteen. All this sounds pretty good, but this is also right around where things began to drag for me. It was also hard to believe all these kids were so gung-ho to be involved with the war, but maybe that’s realistic behavior for “the greatest generation.”

But hey, bonus points for slashiness! Take this lovely passage, for instance:

Finny was right. And there was only one way to show him this. I threw my hip against his, catching him by surprise, and he was instantly down, definitely pleased. This was why he liked me so much. When I jumped on top of him, my knees on his chest, he couldn’t ask for anything better.