by Emma Honkola
A Separate Peace- a book about how the war changes the life of two boys at a rich boarding school in New Hampshire. The National review calls it “A masterpiece”. The San Francisco Chronicle says it’s “Beautifully written…great depth.” If this is so…then why was I left feeling so underwhelmed?
Maybe it starts with how I first came across it. I, along with my group mates, had many expectations about what this book would be about and what it would feature. First and foremost, we thought that this book would be about the war, considering that that is the unit we are currently in and what this book is supposedly about. And yet, the war hardly plays a part of the plot at all. Of course it was brought up a few times, but it never changed how the story was going, at least not enough for it to have made a difference. Even at a place that could have been a big turning point in the novel, where Gene was thinking about enlisting, he was quickly swayed by Finny’s false delusions and demand to train for the Olympics. This could have been an interesting pivotal point in the story and we could have been introduced to the war and to many more of Gene’s inner demons about leaving Finny at home, but the author had instead taken the easy route and gave Finny the incorrect belief that “the whole production of World War II was a trick of the eye manipulated by a bunch of calculating fat old men”(pg 115). How would this be easy? It’s easy because it changes the plot in no way besides adding in a few odd conversations between Gene and Finny. Maybe I am just disappointed because I was expecting something exciting to happen that never happened, but this seemed a bit like either a cop out, or false advertising to me.
A second thing that my group and I thought before reading the book, but were yet again let down on, was a romance between the two main characters. I know, I know, this book was written in the 50’s and takes place even earlier than that, but something is very clearly written in, or at least advertised. The very summary at the back of the book sounds like the back of a Nicholas Sparks novel: “Gene was a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas was a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happened between them at school one summer during the early years of World War II is the subject of A Separate Peace.” Personally, I didn’t expect much. I knew the two protagonists were boys and I also knew that with the lack of LGBT+ content out in the world, that there was a little to no chance of anything actually happening, but I still chose the book with a small hope. Unlike me, another group member looked at this book with the lenses of heteronormativity and still perceived this book as a romance, instead changing the gender of Gene to female (because honestly the name Gene could go either way). As we read the book, it became apparent that this was not a romance, but still…there were some things that got me thinking. Was it just me? Was I projecting my hopes for representation on these characters? So I looked it up. Apparently it’s not just me. I came accross multiple news articles questioning the relationship between Gene and Finny, including a whole wikipedia page chronicling all of their ‘moments’. The movie adaption was even put into a list of 50 greatest romance movies in the 20th century (although one of the group members saw it and said it was not so great). Honestly- the evidence is there. From Gene and Finny’s beach picnic (where they have a heart to heart and watch the sunset together) to Finny’s insistence to wearing the pink shirt, where he says “I wonder what would happen if I looked like a fairy [gay] to everyone”(17) with an air of nonchalance, like he doesn’t mind people thinking him to be gay. Both of these things, especially the shirt incident, do nothing to further the plot and suggest that maybe the author just wanted them there to put the ideas into the reader’s mind. Whatever the purpose, and whatever the intent of the author when he was writing these books, even though nothing ever developed, I will take what I can get.
So, overall, I would say I was pretty disappointed and underwhelmed. Not only did this book have little plot, the plot was very predictable (I predicted that Finny would die at our first book meeting and low and behold come page 169 and Finny is six feet under), and the author wasn’t able to develop many of the things that he could do well- character emotions. Several time the characters had very complex emotions that were quickly resolved in an unrealistic way and never brought back to light, leaving the reader wondering “what happened?”. One of the more obvious times that this happened was when Gene thought he and Finny were constantly competing and that their friendship was really a rivalry. Only a few pages later he suddenly decides that he was being silly and never really goes back to those exact thoughts- variants maybe, but never in such depths. Looking back at the pages in which these thoughts of Genes were articulated shows me that these extreme emotions were built and resolved in the span of six pages, starting at “We were even after all, even in enmity. The deadly rivalry was on both sides after all” (pg. 46) and ending at “Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as him” (pg 51). This is a fine example of the author simplifying some of his better plot points and ideas, instead going for the easy and relatively boring route. Generally, I thought this book to be extremely unimagined and rather displeasing. Reading this book as a group was my only solace, as we were all able to get together and bond over how much we disliked the book.