Hey, before we dig in! I was on a podcast! Superhero Ethics invited me to drop by and talk about storytelling and the hero’s journey, especially with regards to Star Wars and what the changes from A New Hope to Rogue One signify. Recording was super fun and I think it was a great conversation, so I hope you’ll check that out!
Okay, so, the blogathon. In July, I read a A Separate Peace by John Knowles and discovered a flaw in my entire blogathon project, which is: I started with the assumption that I’d have something to say about all of the books I read. And it’s not that I have nothing to say about A Separate Peace, just… maybe… not that much?
But here we go.
A Separate Peace is about Gene, a scholar with a touch of athletic talent, and his best friend/prep school roommate Phineas, a happy-go-lucky, charismatic, ultra-gifted athlete. They’re at school together during WWII, knowing the future holds enlisting as soon as they graduate. But then an accident (or was it an accident?) leaves Finny with a shattered leg, barely able to walk, and with it, their friendship, future, and semi-idyllic world are all shattered as well. It is, to my mind, a book about two things: complicated friendships and war.
Why you gotta go and make things so complicated?
The friendship between Gene and Finny was almost painful for me to read because of the ways it felt true to me, and the ways it hit one of my favorite character dynamics. Specifically, if you want to put it in TV Tropes terms, Finny is a natural leader and Gene is his lancer. Usually that dynamic is part of an ensemble, though in this case it’s a bit more isolated, but the elements are there. Finny is an athletic, impulsive rule breaker; Gene is an intellectual, anxious rule follower. At their best, they balance each other out.
They are rarely at their best.
A lancer character is going to be my favorite in prettttty much any given piece of media I consume. And it’s because what fascinates me is this: how do you grow into your own person when your identity is so wrapped up in being half of something larger? How do you make peace with feeling constantly overshadowed by someone you love and respect?
It is not easy. And it’s especially not easy in high school.
In the first act of the book, Gene both adores Finny and lets himself completely fall into orbit around Finny’s life. He skips classes when Finny tells him to, he sneaks out at night, he climbs trees and plays games he doesn’t care about, because Finny is like a force of nature for him. But he also resents it. He feels like they’re in constant competition and wonders if Finny is sabotaging him — trying to ruin his GPA with constant outings so that Finny’s athletic accomplishments will outshine Gene’s academic success. He sees Finny as the school’s golden boy and knows some of that glow reflects back on him, as Finny’s best friend; that position makes him feel special, but also frustrated and angry.
It just felt so true to me. I have been that person, definitely as the lancer; I suspect also on the other side. I can think of specific instances in high school… well, there were times when I felt kind of undermined by people I loved. Not that our friendships weren’t genuine, because they were. And not that I was any better in return. But it wasn’t until years later that I could look back and say, “Oh, they… they kind of made me feel bad, even though we were good friends? Maybe not on purpose, but… maybe to make themselves feel better?” Which I think is pretty common.
To be clear: I don’t think this happened because my friends were jerks (they weren’t!), or is common because there are a ton of jerks out there (ehhh there might be, but that’s not what I’m talking about). I think it’s common in high school because that’s when people are still learning how to be friends. Figuring out how to navigate interpersonal relationships is a skill, and like all other skills, it’s one you develop with practice and experience. High school is when people start to gain that experience. It means they mess up. They hurt or undermine each other. It doesn’t mean they’re terrible, and most of them grow out of it. (Hence every TV show ever where someone says a catty character is stuck in high school.)
One of the reasons I’m drawn to YA, as both a writer and a reader, is that it’s a category that tackles questions like: who am I? Who should I be? What is my place in the world and how do I get there? Those are huge things to figure out, and most of us start that process as teens. But those questions require a lot of learning, a lot of trying and messing up. Hurting people’s feelings and not knowing what to do about it; having your feelings hurt, not knowing what to do about that, either.
Gene and Finny’s relationship felt very much like, well, all of that to me. Gene swings wildly back and forth between adoring Finny and hating him, often for completely innocuous reasons. Or are they? Is Finny, occasionally, actually undermining Gene because he doesn’t know how else to interact yet? Could be!
Of the books I’ve read for this project, this is the first one that really centers on a friendship. I love that it’s messy and complicated and comfortable. I… don’t love how it ends.
Dying is easy, young man, living is harder.
Let me state for the record, to make it absolutely clear: me not liking the end of the book is not a statement about the quality or effectiveness of the book. It’s very well written and effective! Just… not for me.
Here’s the deal: Finny dies abruptly. And then… well, the book ends. That’s pretty much that.
And I get it. And to be fair, that description takes it a bit out of context a bit. As I noted earlier, it’s a story about war, which is interesting considering it takes place at a prep school and not on either of the fronts of WWII. But it’s very much about kids being forced out of a comfortable boyhood into terrifying adulthood, where everything is murky and bad things happen.
One of the other characters, their friend the class weirdo Leper, enlists, only to have a breakdown and flee, going AWOL. Meanwhile Finny, who can’t accept that he won’t be able to enlist now that he’s got a bum leg, insists that the war isn’t even real. Yet another student, Brinker, keeps making noises about how he’s going to enlist but chickening out at the last second, only to eventually grudgingly enlist because his father forces him to. And we know from the way the book is framed that Gene, too, eventually enlists, but never sees any action.
Finny’s death makes sense in that context. These boys are all being shaped into soldiers, whether they want to or not. Leper can’t handle it; Brinker and Gene grudgingly accept it. And Finny’s death — well, people die in war. Unfairly, randomly. It happens, and everyone else just has to handle it and carry on. Finny was a vibrant, charismatic, beloved friend, cut down in his prime and his death is pretty senseless. Further, as Gene points out, despite Finny’s physical abilities, his disdain for authority and general love for fellow man would make him a terrible soldier. Surviving war would very likely break him; instead, he dies.
So yeah, I get it.
But it’s just… not my jam. The part of the book I was really intrigued by was the complicated, messy friendship of the first act. I’m not the right audience for war stories, and I’d always rather read about someone dealing with messy aftermath than about the tragedy that leads to said aftermath. Meaning: I’d rather see the impact Finny’s death had on Gene than just have the story… stop.
As I was reading, what it actually reminded me the most of was the first season of Veronica Mars. (Which, if you haven’t seen, go watch immediately.) But in short: Veronica’s larger-than-life, too-charismatic-for-this-world best friend Lily is murdered, and Veronica is profoundly changed by it, and by the fallout from the murder. (It’s a noir detective story, and it’s awesome.) Lily is seen only through flashbacks and memories, and we see what Veronica was like back then, too, which shows us the actual ramifications of Lily’s death on Veronica and the other people around her.
That story, to me, is interesting. But that’s not what A Separate Peace is. That’s not the book’s problem, it’s mine. And frankly, in this case, I’d rather read about what would happen if Finny survived. What if someone like Finny, who has always been defined by his physicality, survived and had to cope and adapt? We know it wouldn’t be easy — after all, that’s two-thirds of the book. But what about someday, in the future? I’d rather read that story.
But, you know, not every book is for every reader. And like I said: this is a very well-crafted book, and I can understand why it’s a classic and why a lot of people love it. It’s just not really my thing.
- Author autobio watch: probably more directly autobiographical than The Catcher in the Rye, less so than Little Women. Devon School is based pretty directly on Phillips Exeter, which Knowles attended in the 40s; he at one point had a foot injury from jumping out of a tree; he spent two years in the Air Force between high school and college.
- Hoooo boy, this book is homoerotic. That could have been a full section above, but has been discussed previously by enough people that Knowles at one point gave a statement denying it. His denial basically consisted of saying that if he’d meant for them to be gay they would have been gay, damn it, which, lol. But sorry, John Knowles: your book is hella gay.
- Hey, what if there had been a girl in this book, like, anywhere? (I know. It’s an all-boys school. There’s a nurse at one point, I think? I get it. But like: girls and women exist, even in the lives of boys at all-boys schools.)
- I couldn’t make any sense of Finny’s made up sport of blitzball, but to be fair, I can’t make any sense of football, either, and that’s a real sport.