Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.
Did any of you ever struggle with American literature in high school? I did. In fact, I developed a strong British bias early on as a result of being forced to read the slogging, long American works before any of the mind-blowingly awesome ones. I continue to feel this was a failed strategy. I mean, I still cringe whenever I think about The Grapes of Wrath, and it took all the way till college to discover that Steinbeck was actually awesome, when my professor slapped a copy of "The Chrysanthemums" in my lap. Same goes for Hemingway. Who knew his short stories were incredible? When it came to high school, it wasn't until they handed us The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace that things got interesting. And then Fitzgerald came along and it was like, where have you been all my life F. Scott? We read A Separate Peace in 10th grade, and I had a copy with the middle cover above. I still do, and to this day that is how I picture Gene. At least, I've always assumed it was Gene. Finny somehow seemed to me too large, too dark, too chaotic a personality to try to represent on a mere cover. I do love this cover, though, because it is both beautiful and menacing at the same time. Those of you who've read it will know what I mean.
Gene Forrester attends the prestigious Devon prep school in New England. During the period leading up to World War II, Gene shares a dorm room with a young man by the name of Phineas. Finny. Finny is everything Gene is not. Popular, handsome, athletic, and happy. Gene envies his roommate his easy manner and way with life. The two become close friends, and Gene's feelings come to torment him, particularly as Finny is as nice as he is talented. He seems to care little for his reputation or status and so Gene lives under the shadow of both his friend's prowess and the crushing guilt of his own emotions. Then one day Gene's actions (as nebulous as they may be) cause a disastrous event. And the relationship between the two boys will never be the same again. As the war draws ever closer, the boys of Devon prepare to be drafted and boast of how well they will match up to the requirements of war. Meanwhile, Gene and Finny wage their own war of sorts, between reality and memory, shaking the ground their friendship is built upon. It is this silent war that will determine the remains of their lives, far more definitively than the one taking place across an ocean.
A Separate Peace is one of those books that, once I start reading it, becomes immediately impossible for me to stop. Every passage is memorable, and every one of Gene's remembrances is weighty with meaning. The entire story is told from Gene's perspective, looking back on the experiences of that summer, several years after they took place. The opening unforgettable lines:
I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn't as well kept up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.How is it possible for one opening passage to induce smiles, tears, and a deep sense of foreboding all at once? A lot of it has to do with remembering how utterly without abandon I fell into this story the first time I read it, when I, too, was fifteen. Just like Gene. And part of it is, like Gene, knowing what's coming and being so afraid of getting there and so helpless to turn back. But most of it is simply the mild, thoughtful writing, the mingled fear and nostalgia, and the wonderful, wonderful characters. If you've never had the chance to pick this one up, I envy you the experience of meeting Finny for the first time. You won't meet his like again. Like Gene, you'll be drawn to this magnetic young man who has everything going for him, who loves sport more than anything on this earth, and who is all set to become the most stellar soldier there ever was. With his personal set of commandments, his Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, and his invention of blitzball, Finny is the world. For himself, for Gene, and most certainly for the reader. Which is, of course, why the events of the story have such a strong impact. I think these two have been in the back of my mind ever since I read this book for the first time sophomore year in high school. And I'm not sure I've passed judgement on either of them yet. What I do know is I've loved the name Finny ever since, and when we had our little boy earlier this year, Finn was at the top of the list of names. Though I hope my boy doesn't share all of the same qualities with this character, we call him Finny every day. And it always makes me smile.
I didn't entirly like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that's exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.
Now here it was after all, preserved by some considerate hand with varnish and wax. Prserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn't even known it was there. Because, unfamiliar with the absence of fear and what that was like, I had not been able to identify its presence.
Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.
I felt fear's echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky.
Retro Friday Roundup
A Girl, Books and Other Things reviews Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas
Good Books and Good Wine reviews I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
One Librarians Book Reviews reviews The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer