I recently read ‘A separate peace’ by John Knowles. It is a book about teenage boys in an all boy boarding school, living through their last two school years before being shipped off as soldiers to world war two. It especially deals with the tragic relationship between the two roommates Gene and Phineas. This book has some beautifully crafted sentences, observations of nature and mood that are noting short of impressive and some very nuanced character development of the protagonist, yet it left me feeling angry. Why? Because it is such a boys book. It is written by a man, about men, for men. The book bursts with descriptions of sports and activities, and healthy bodies. The importance of physical prowess and strength is overwhelming. So much so that the two characters who become, or started off as soft, are considered broken and better off dead. If you can’t be the able bodied and minded picture of an aggressive male, you’re worth noting. Then there is the general acceptance of war and death. It lures everywhere and is a fixed fate. Characters deal with it with such a nonchalance that I asked myself, why should I care what happens to them if they all end up dead in a trench a few months later anyway? Even if there are some scenes that suggest a critical appraisal of the situation, it is very poignant, that the destruction of one of the characters by military life is only blamed on the character and not ever on military life or the war itself. Also, in the end everyone goes. With the exception of the broken one of course, who is left behind.
The next thing I noticed was that there were no girls. None of the protagonists had a girlfriend. None of them talked about girls, being in love, being after girls, or thinking about girls. In an all boy school class of 16 to 17 year old boys I find that highly unlikely. The only speaking female role in the whole book comes near the end and is only used as a sign of weakness. We get to see and hear the mother of one of the characters because he is somewhere where he is not supposed to be.
On the flip-side, there is some homosexual tension, but it is never really realized. It is just there as an undercurrent. I do believe that this was necessary at the time. The first copyright of this book goes back to 1959. I would not be surprised if a version written today had Gene and Phineas as lovers.
Lastly, the main character of Phineas is too unbelievable. He is too perfect, too angelic, too charismatic. His superior intelligence and his final goal do not gel and I wondered if I ever got to see the ‘real’ Phineas, or only glorified projections of his roommate.
In the end I wondered why I was told this school memory at all. Maybe I am jaded, because I had experienced better retellings of boarding school memories before in book form (Looking for Alaska by John Green) and in movie form (Dead Poets Society). Those retellings were more detailed and inclusive and moved me in a positive way. A separate peace did not, because, it was clearly not written for a female like me.