A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Posted June 28, 2020 by Amber in Reviews / 4 Comments

A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

Publisher: Harvill Secker on April 1, 1959
Genre: Bildungsroman, Classics, Historical Fiction
Target Age Group: Young Adult

Rating: ★★★★

Check out this book on Goodreads

An American classic and great bestseller for over thirty years, A Separate Peace is timeless in its description of adolescence during a period when the entire country was losing its innocence to the second world war.

Set at a boys’ boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.


When I read this book in high school, I remember two things very distinctly.  Firstly, I remember really enjoying it.  Second, I remember believing fully that Phineas loved Gene.  These are the memories I took away from this book, and I haven’t touched it in fifteen years.

But I wanted to read it again.

And now I think… I think A Separate Peace is a great book and I enjoyed it.  And, try to look for LGBTQ+ undertones as I might, I don’t think there are any.  There is so much to unpack in A Separate Peace.  There’s a lot of underlying themes and conversations and I really enjoyed it.

I also think that the audiobook may not been the best route for this one.  The audiobook is very well-read, it’s just … because this is a thinking book.  Reading at a slower, more natural speed feels better to intake all the information and process it. It’s interesting, and it’s the type of book where… you sort of want to ask other people “what do you think about this?”

There are no thoroughly likable characters in A Separate Peace.  You’re always sort of second-guessing peoples’ motivations, most of all our protagonist, Gene.  The characters are caught in a bubble, impressioned by the greater world but not really a part of it.  Their reactions to the different levels of this community.  As a piece of historical fiction, the boys of Devons feel like they fit well into their world.

Devons itself… feels right.  It’s the classic image of an all-male, all-white New England school around the time of WWII.  It has the “charming New England school” vibe to it which is cozy, but also has that feel of privileged isolation.  This is a pretty traditional feel for a classic novel.

And I know the way I talk about it, doesn’t make it sound like a great book, right?  It’s not the setting or the characters that make this book memorable or interesting (though I could probably write a whole essay analyzing Gene and Phinny’s friendship).  It’s the questions asked, and that sort of thing is why this is so commonly an academically chosen novel.  The question of war and friendship and responsibility and patriotism.  A Separate Peace is a book to think about, to theorize about, if not to gobble up and enjoy.

So, really, I liked it.  It’s not the type of book I’d pick up out of whimsy, but it’s a good book for some contemplative reading and intellectual conversation.

Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★★ 1/2
Plot: ★★★★
Characters: ★★★★
Writing: ★★★★★
Pacing: ★★★
Narrator: ★★★★
Personal Enjoyment: ★★★★


Do you prefer books that make you smile or books that make you think?  I believe I like a little of both in my TBR to keep things fresh.  Do let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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4 responses to “A Separate Peace by John Knowles

  1. Elka

    I’m the same — I don’t think “thinky” books and “smiley” books should be mutually exclusive 😊