John Knowles is best known for his first opus: A Separate Peace. The awards granted this work suggest one reason for its enormous popularity and persistence, especially in the academic milieu: it is a very useful text with which to teach students how a good book should be written.
Knowles's other novels have generally been judged by critics to display a pleasing style, a clear plot line, and a fine sense of place (perhaps a partial result of his work for Holiday Magazine)—but, A Separate Peace adds, in great measure, to these qualities three other elements of fiction that carry it beyond the other titles: a focused, useful point of view; a superb realization of character; and, a substantial, wholesome, and satisfying theme.
These attributes blend well in this minor classic. The first-person narrator, Gene Forrester (perhaps representing Knowles himself, at an earlier age), provides the point of view (the reader can know and feel only what the narrator observes and experiences), and this works to the novel's benefit, since the most important thrust in the text is Gene's feeling about, reaction to, and final understanding of the hero of the book: the delightful, admirable, charming Phineas ("Finny").
Making such a truly amiable figure believable is one of the great triumphs of A Separate Peace. Knowles accomplishes this by combining the characteristics of a superb athlete, an indifferent student, a wildly daring young man, and a profoundly extroverted character all in one. The setting is the Devon School (based on Phillips Exeter Academy, attended by Knowles) in the summer of 1942. Since the...