The momentum of his argument abruptly broke from his control. His face froze. 'Because I've suffered,' he burst out."
This book should be titled, A Separate Peace: Or, The World's Tiniest Violin.
Gene is a student at Devon Prep. It's the middle of World War II, and he's too young to enlist or be drafted. His best friend at school is Phineas, or Finny, who, despite being a lackluster student, can talk his way out of a paper bag and is a superb athlete. The boys are best friends, and pretty much all of the subtext is screaming that there's something more going on here, but Knowles dances a tarantella around the issue. I mean, come on, listen to this:
"He caught my leg and there was a brief wrestling match on the turf which he won ... 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."
Between scenes like that and a lot of references to Greek gods and ancient wrestling, all this tortured emotional stuff became almost painfully comedic. It's like Knowles was trying to write a book about two guys, but was too afraid? worried? shy? to just come out and say something. This is, of course, where my English teacher would jump in, stomp her sensible pumps, and ask us, "But what did the author really mean by that? Why did the author use those particular words in that particular order in that particular chapter? Why would he not want to say his characters are gay?" Clearly, since I am not a mind-reader, I don't know.
Actually, this was one book that I managed to avoid reading in high school. I am profoundly grateful for this. I barely managed to read it as an adult. Those are hours of my life I can never get back.
Some reviewers say this book has no action--true enough, but a book needn't have action to be well-written. See, for example, À rebours by Huysmans, which has almost no plot at all and yet is mind-blowingly complex. Others say that it has no point--again, not true. There is a point somewhere in this morass of fancy words and convoluted language and white male privilege. I'm going to go with guilt and identity as two themes here. Ahhh ... so maybe I didn't find the point, either. But it's buried in there, somewhere. I think.
Look, here's the lowdown: Gene and Finny are roommates. For some reason, Gene gets it into his head that they are rivals (when they're really not: Gene's more academic and Finny's into sports), so he contrives (whether consciously or unconsciously or quasi-consciously--you decide) to cause Finny to have an accident (and I don't mean urine). Then, we have to suffer through pages and pages and pages of Gene's guilt-not-guilt and sorry-not-sorry. Evidently, the minutiae of getting towels for the crew team or walking to class are important enough to have pages of prose written about them. It's not spectacular prose, either. Knowles manages to hover between overwritten and overly simplistic. The plot, what little of it there is, is really ludicrous when you step back and think about it.
The opening quote occurs after Finny's accident, which renders him unable to play sports. Does Knowles really want us to think that Finny's suffering of a broken leg, of sports dreams quashed, is really the worst suffering there is? Maybe it's all an elaborate joke--maybe we are supposed to look at these people and think, "Gosh, what self-absorbed twits they all are." But I really don't think that was the point when this was written: I think we, as readers, are supposed to take this at face-value. What really irks me about this whole martyrdom is that it's set during WWII. Millions of people were dying in horrible, horrible ways and your broken leg is suffering? Cry me a river.
The privilege that oozes out of this book is thick and cloying. All the frolicking in the wide fields and rowing for crew and studying for exams and fancy marble staircases aren't anything I can relate to. I can't look at a single character in this book and find a piece of myself in him (because there are no women in this book. Boys' Club Only.). Gene's detachment borders on psychopathy. "Oh, my friend had an accident. Oops, I caused it. Oh, my friend had another accident. Oops, now he died. Cheerio!" What? What what?
I honestly don't understand why this is considered a classic, which may be an inflammatory statement to make, but I'm well within my rights to make it. What in this book is relatable to teens? Why would you want to force-feed teens an insipid novel about teen dudes who prance around a fancy prep school? I know it's supposed to be innocence versus the war and all that. I get it. But that doesn't mean the book achieved its purpose in making me feel something. Unless that something was intended to be repugnance.
If you had to read this in school, I'm sorry. If you didn't have to read this but want to know what all the fuss is about, proceed only if you are a literary masochist.