John Knowles Knowles, John (Vol. 26) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Knowles 1926–

American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Fascinated by the era affected by World War II, Knowles often places his fiction during that period. He writes of young heroes facing the tests of modern life. His young male protagonists arrive at a painful awakening, the realization of the evil in society and in themselves. Knowles perceives this realization as their major step toward manhood.

Knowles's most famous novel, A Separate Peace, is characteristic of his greatest concerns. This fictional account of a young man's moral and emotional maturation has been consistently popular with young adults since its publication in 1960. Like most of Knowles's other works, A Separate Peace portrays two protagonists who battle with the love/hate relationship that evolves out of their strikingly different views of life. Gene and Phineas exemplify Knowles's use of doubles to portray the dichotomy in the American personality, which Knowles characterizes as "a careful Protestant with a savage stirring in his insides."

Following A Separate Peace, almost universally considered a classic, beautifully wrought novel, Knowles wrote several works which failed to attain the critical acclaim of this first novel. Even his recent Peace Breaks Out, which shares the elite prep school setting and a similar theme with A Separate Peace, does not fulfill its promise.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; Something about the Author, Vol. 8; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

Simon Raven

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Separate Peace], modest as it is in tone, is likely to leave you thinking. The misuse of science now makes it necessary to articulate a new and purely practical form of Pacifism, a Pacifism which, free of crankiness and owing nothing to religious sensitivity, depends entirely on simple common sense. From now on, people must say, war will mean not only a shortage of cakes and ale but the end of everything. It is this form of protest, of personal withdrawal from political folly which, among other things, makes such pleasant reading of John Knowles's A Separate Peace. It is the story of two friends at a smart American preparatory school (for 'preparatory' read 'public' in this country) at the time when America first joined the Second World War. In the beginning the younger boys are more or less ignored while their elders are hurriedly prepared for the blood bath; but as time goes on the whole school is efficiently geared to the conditioning of cannon-fodder, and every aspect of work and play comes to be valued, by masters who are themselves too old to fight, only in so far as it is a preparation for the trial to come…. Gene, the intellectually inclined narrator, has a fit of insane resentment and causes his athletic friend, Phineas, to break his leg. Phineas, so badly crippled that he will be out of the war in any case, broods over the separate peace thus forced upon him and eventually decides that the war is entirely spurious, that the...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Separate Peace] is, indeed, a novel of altogether exceptional power and distinction. [Mr. Knowles] writes of a New England preparatory school—what over here would be called a public school—and of two sixteen-year-olds in particular, Finny and Gene, the narrator, who looks back on his wartime schooldays from the standpoint of his present adulthood.

It would be easy to say that Finny is the brilliant, outward-looking athlete, Gene the first-class brain and subtle self-analyser, and that from the element of latent, hardly formulated antagonism which is present in their close friendship springs the tragedy which causes Gene the man to write: "I did not cry then or ever about Finny. I did not cry even when I stood watching him being lowered into his family's strait-laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case."

It would be easy, but it would be an over-simplification. Mr. Knowles's world is the real world where black-and-white character-contrasts rarely lie conveniently to hand. Gene and Finny can slip in and out of each other's roles and yet remain entirely themselves while doing so. Their relationship has that subtle elusiveness which is entirely human and which novelists, with good reason, find desperately difficult to convey.

The other characters—masters and boys—are all given life and individuality. The school itself, gradually losing something of its relaxed, patrician manner as the war draws closer, is described with precision and economy. There is no gush. There is no smut. If this is Mr. Knowles's first novel it shows an astonishingly firm grasp of the right end of the stick.

"School Reports," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1959; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2983, May 1, 1959, p. 262.∗

Maurice Richardson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Separate Peace is a short, thoughtful, ambitious American study of a fatal relationship between two upper-class schoolboys in late adolescence during the war…. There are several abrupt and pleasing variations from conventional American attitudes, including a pretence that the war does not exist. Mr Knowles has clearly worked hard on this novel, modelling it carefully on the best neo-Forsterian, Trillingesque lines. Yet somehow it just fails to convince. The school background exerts none of the fascination that generally belongs to these most compelling of institutional frameworks. Gene and Finney seem to be performing their odd psychological warfare in a vacuum. Gene is particularly unsatisfactory; he has almost none of the ego-sense that you expect in a first-person narrator and it makes him difficult to identify with.

Maurice Richardson, in his review of "A Separate Peace," in New Statesman (© 1959 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LVII, No. 1468, May 2, 1959, p. 618.

Harding Lemay

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"A Separate Peace," John Knowles' first novel, is a consistently admirable exercise in the craft of fiction—disciplined, precise, witty and always completely conscious of intention and effect—and yet, in spite of these rare assets (or perhaps because of them), the novel's final effect is one of remoteness and aridity. The theme, that of the corroding flaw in friendship between young males, has engaged the talents of such disparate writers as Thomas Mann, William Maxwell and Scott Fitzgerald. Having chosen a theme which echoes in every sensitive man's experience, Mr. Knowles chooses further to isolate it from the mainstream of life, almost as if he were examining one case of a disease which rages in an epidemic throughout the rest of the world. All that intelligence and industry, tact and talent can bring to his novel are here, but its virtues breed its defects as the story unfolds….

The force and grief which might have charged "A Separate Peace" with an electric depth are diluted by the restrictions the author has chosen to impose upon his story (especially the deliberate exclusion of parents and backgrounds, as if boys arrive at school from a vacuum) and a somewhat cautious approach which insists upon gazing from a distance upon the seething cauldron of adolescent nature. The sorrows, the guilts, the uncertainties and the exuberance of youth pass in shadow here, sketched with irony and conscious artistry, but it is we the readers who must provide the substance from our response to personal experience in similar relationships.

Harding Lemay, "Two Boys and a War Within," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), March 6, 1960, p. 6.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Separate Peace, Knowles's] excellent first novel, is remarkable not only for the virtues it possesses but for the faults it lacks. There is little of the melodrama customary in books about adolescence. There is no Wolfeian confluence of the literary and the pituitary—the youthful poet growing an inch a month on a diet of a book a day. The author is no more sentimental or romantic about his hero than Stephen Crane was about the protagonist of The Red Badge of Courage. The books are similar in kind and (to a considerable extent) in quality: Author Crane's young soldier had to endure the discovery of fear, and Author Knowles's schoolboy must face the discovery of hatred—a bitter and homicidal knot of hatred in himself. (p. 96)

To insist on a single explication for a book as subtle and brilliant as Author Knowles's would be idle. But one of the things the novelist seems to be saying is that the enemy Gene killed, and loved, is the one every man must kill: his own youth, the innocence that burns too hotly to be endured. (p. 98)

"The Leap," in Time (copyright 1960 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 75, No. 14, April 4, 1960, pp. 96-98.

Jay L. Halio

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It is] heartening to see a few like John Knowles who, taking his cue from [Ernest Hemingway's] The Sun Also Rises rather than from [Hemingway's] For Whom the Bell Tolls, has brought back to recent fiction some of the clear craftsmanship and careful handling of form that characterizes our earlier and best fiction in this century. (p. 107)

[Before] man can be redeemed back into social life, he must first come to terms with himself, he must first—as has been said so often of American writers—discover who and what he is. That we must look inward and learn to face honestly what we see there and then move onwards or anyway outwards is necessary if in the long run we are to salvage any...

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James Ellis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To read A Separate Peace is to discover a novel which is completely satisfactory and yet so provocative that the reader wishes immediately to return to it. John Knowles' achievement is due, I believe, to his having successfully imbued his characters and setting with a symbolism that while informative is never oppressive. Because of this the characters and the setting retain both the vitality of verisimilitude and the psychological tension of symbolism.

What happens in the novel is that Gene Forrester and Phineas, denying the existence of the Second World War as they enjoy the summer peace of Devon School, move gradually to a realization of an uglier adult world—mirrored in the winter and the...

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Ronald Weber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Professor Halio's recent appreciation of the two short novels of John Knowles [see excerpt above] was especially welcome. Knowles's work, and in particular his fine first novel, A Separate Peace, has not yet received the close attention it merits. In a time that has seen high praise for fat, awkwardly-managed novels, he stands out as a precise and economical craftsman. For this alone he demands serious consideration.

Although Professor Halio calls attention to this technical achievement—Knowles, he writes, "has brought back to recent fiction some of the clear craftsmanship and careful handling of form that characterizes our earlier and best fiction in this century" …—he is not concerned...

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Paul Witherington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The development and resolution of tensions between Gene and Finny provide the well-balanced structure of A Separate Peace, as several critics have noted. What has not been appreciated, however, is the ambiguity of the boys' conflict in its several phases, an ambiguity expressed in both character and symbol. The story is not a simple allegory of man's fortunate or unfortunate fall from innocence, or even an extension of that theological debate to the process of growing up, though both of these arguments are in the novel. Rather, Knowles is investigating patterns of society as a whole, patterns consisting of ambiguous tensions between rigidity and flexibility, involvement and isolation, and magic and art. To...

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Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Indian Summer is a selection of the Literary Guild, and in the Guild's bulletin for August, Knowles says that the book "came about through the collision in my mind of two things: a strange little town I knew in Connecticut, and the friendships I have formed with people who later turned out to be very rich." This, however, was not the whole story: "But in essence what I tried for in Indian Summer was neither a novel of place nor a novel about great wealth. I wished instead to express the plight, and the wide dreams, of a certain kind of young American, one who has had to come down in the world."

It is with the young American, Cleet Kinsolving, that the novel begins—on the day in...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It may be too early to attempt more than a tentative appraisal of the overall achievement of John Knowles. Certainly one can say that he ranks among the most promising young American novelists; and one can recognize the obvious fact that A Separate Peace … has become a small classic among college students and seems likely to last for some time. His other novels, however, have only been noticed in passing: Morning in Antibes and Indian Summer have not really been analyzed and evaluated. Nor is there any substantial critical commentary on Knowles's work as a whole.

I would like to begin such a commentary; and I propose to do so by placing Knowles, as it were—by relating him to...

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Franziska Lynne Greiling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The topic of this article will be not innocence but freedom, the Greek theme of A Separate Peace. (p. 1269)

Knowles is concerned with the implications of certain Greek ideas: the necessity and effects of freedom, and its corollary ideal of arete: the individual's fulfillment of his own excellences—moral, physical, intellectual, and political. In the first half, Phineas reflects these concerns.

Phineas has a love of excellence and fulfills his ability in the discipline of athletics. When Finny understands that Gene must study to satisfy his ability as a scholar, he says:

We kid around a lot and everything, but you have to be serious...

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Robert H. Donahugh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Youth is dominant in five of the six stories comprising this distinguished collection [Phineas and Other Stories]. The title story and "A Turn With the Sun" are set in a boy's boarding school. In both Mr. Knowles gives a nostalgic view of memorable boys and the educational system. "The Peeping Tom" is a painfully personal drama of a young man's meaningless life. While "Martin the Fisherman" is little more than a vignette, "The Reading of the Will" is a suspenseful story of a father's bequest, a sealed envelope, and two brothers who inherit different things. This collection of superior stories by one of America's most appealing writers should be welcomed by adult readers and by young adults.


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Sally Kempton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Knowles's first book, "A Separate Peace," was one of those legendary adolescent novels, passed hand to hand around the dormitories at Groton, buoyed into successive paperback editions by that most valuable of commercial assets, an underground reputation. It was a very special book, about a special type of Eastern prep-school kid, and it was notable for two qualities: a complete absence of humor and a curious air of self-seriousness, as if it had been composed in the service of a 16-year-old boy's romantic self-image. "A Separate Peace" was a schoolboy tragedy seen entirely in schoolboy's terms. Its protagonist was the classic prep-school hero, a sort of eccentric Hobie Baker, innocent, straight, the victim of...

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James P. Degnan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Phineas is] concerned mainly with the psychological problems of American male adolescents. Admirers of Mr. Knowles's well-known novel, A Separate Peace, will recognize in the title story, as well as in "A Turn in the Sun," much of the source material for A Separate Peace. Competent, sophisticated, and a master of place description, Mr. Knowles also dramatizes as well as anyone I know the torments—especially the torments of ostracism—suffered by the sensitive and intelligent male adolescent. But when he gets off this subject he seems lost. In "The Peeping Tom," for example, he seems desperately and unsuccessfully to be searching for a subject worthy of his ambition and talent. (pp. 275-76)...

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Peter Wolfe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Knowles's concern with morality colors all his books. This preoccupation finds its most general expression in a question asked in Double Vision …, an informal travel journal: "Can man prevail against the bestiality he himself has struggled out of by a supreme effort?" Knowles's novels, instead of attacking the question head-on, go about it indirectly. They ask, first, whether a person can detach himself from his background—his society, his tradition, and the primitive energies that shaped his life.

The question is important because Knowles sees all of modern life shot through with malevolence. (p. 189)

[It is Knowles's major premise] that the condition of life is...

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Webster Schott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Knowles has written a beautiful, funny, moving novel about a young man in trouble. If "The Paragon" is flawed—and I think it is—the cracks may shorten its life but they won't seriously impair the pleasure of reading it. Knowles, who got his medals for "A Separate Peace," is an intelligent man telling us things we need to know about ourselves. He tells them well.

The title is important. It's not "A Paragon." It's "The Paragon." And Knowles's model or pattern of perfection for youth and manhood is a seeking, nonconforming, erratically brilliant and socially maladjusted college student. For Knowles the perfect model must be less than perfect. Not an irony. A moral position.


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The Booklist

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Paragon Knowles] again shows empathy with young people. With considerable freewheeling humor and light irony he depicts the Yale University scene and Louis Colfax, a decided original in spirit and behavior, as he seeks to express his assorted doubts and talents and strives to surmount the strangeness and failure that he considers inescapable in his family heritage. Characterization often slips into caricature, less so with Louis himself and young Charlotte—whom he loses because he feels unready to give her the child she desires—than in the case of Louis' wealthy, haughty, insensitive roommate, the roommate's glamorous, earthy, outspoken former stepmother, and Louis' radical Afro-Brazilian friend....

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Larry Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Separate Peace proves that John Knowles is a good writer. Spreading Fires does not. It begins like a travelogue (the setting is Cannes, a town that lends itself to the picturesque), changes into a psychological study, and ends up a thriller. The main character, Brendan; his sister, Miriam; their mother, Marietta; and Miriam's lover, Xavier make up a villa-full of flawed personalities trying to cope with a psychotic servant, Neville. They cope badly, supposedly highlighting their own problems. It doesn't come off. There are too many vibrations trying to become subplots and never quite making it. Perhaps the characters simply need more time, more space to develop. The reader is left with loose ends,...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Did you admire John Knowles's first novel, "A Separate Peace"? After floundering somewhat in his three subsequent novels ("Morning in Antibes," "Phineas" and "The Paragon"), Mr. Knowles seems to be in firm control again in "Spreading Fires." At least for a while, he does. A lot of tension builds on the surface of this story about a strange cook named Neville who comes with a villa in the South of France that Brendan Lucas has rented for the summer. As long as Brendan stays alone at the villa, Neville is merely compulsively neat and industrious; but when Brendan's sister and fiancé arrive, Neville starts venting rage and paranoia; and when Brendan's overdomineering mother arrives, Neville starts fondling his butcher...

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Agnes C. Ringer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

West Virginia in the boom days of the coal industry is the locale for [A Vein of Riches, a] rather pedestrian novel which opens in 1909 when coal has made Middleburg a "city of a hundred millionaires," among them the Catherwood family. Clarkson, the husband and father, head of one of the larger companies, is too engrossed in business affairs to pay much attention to his son, Lyle, an only child, or Minnie, his wife, who finds escape in a "born again" religious experience…. A romance of sorts between Lyle and the widow of one of his father's assistants does little to enliven a novel whose characters are basically uninteresting people and whose pace is lethargic.

Agnes C....

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Jack Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Knowles, author of the highly acclaimed A Separate Peace, has now written a soap operatic historical novel about a coal baron's family in West Virginia that loses its money but discovers "things that really mean a lot more." That A Vein of Riches refers not just to the novel's coal boom setting but also to these newly plumbed human feelings and values is a point Knowles wants very badly for us not to miss….

By relentlessly spelling everything out, Knowles demonstrates little confidence in his own or in his readers' imagination. If he thinks we may miss a symbol, he identifies it for us: "Clarkson surveyed the scene, a formidable figure in his vested navy blue suit with high stiff...

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Diane J. Swanbrow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Coal mining has yielded literary riches for several generations, and John Knowles strikes yet another solid vein in this tale of his native West Virginia [A Vein of Riches]. Knowles exercises masterful discrimination, both in his choice of characters and in his selection of the details to portray those characters, making the novel richly readable. The Catherwoods are the wealthiest and most influential family in Middleburg, West Virginia, depicted at the height of their power—during the coal boom of 1910–1920. Forming a kaleidoscopic backdrop for the family, the turbulence of the First World War, the scandal of the Harding administration, and the bloody fight for unionization in the mines all contribute to...

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Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Peace Breaks Out"] Pete Hallam—class of '37—returning to the Devon School in New Hampshire in the fall of 1945 as a teacher, hopes to recover there from wartime traumas. But the boys in the class of '46 are an edgy bunch, frustrated and guilty because they won't be graduating from the prep school to the armed forces like the classes before them. There's a simmering air of violence among them during the long winter as Pete in his low-keyed way tries to help them cross the threshold to adulthood. The students include the familiar types … but Knowles makes each one a unique and vulnerable character. This may not be the virtuoso performance that "A Separate Peace" was, but it's a sympathetic and nostalgic...

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Paul Piazza

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles revisits Devon School, the New Hampshire prep school that provided the setting for his 1950s best seller, A Separate Peace. Perceptively and sensitively written, A Separate Peace movingly chronicled the struggle between two adolescents who, too young to enlist, discover the enemy not in Europe or in the Pacific, but in themselves. Unfortunately, Knowles' new novel lacks the power and tightly wrought structure of his earlier work.

The time of Peace Breaks Out is September 1945; the war has ended, and veteran Pete Hallam returns to his alma mater to teach American history. From the beginning the book disappoints. As a veteran, Pete must of...

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Julian Moynahan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The continuing appeal of "A Separate Peace" has little to do with its wartime atmosphere, though that is well handled. Rather, the attraction is its central character, Phineas, the 16-year-old epitome of "schoolboy glamour" who is done to death over the course of a school year. Phineas, with his gift for fantasy, capacity for affection and sheer physical grace, must stand somewhere between [F. Scott Fitzgerald's] Gatsby and [John Irving's] Garp in the spectrum of American white middle-class culture heroes. Tragically, as the force of Phineas's natural superiority impinges on his impressionable roommate, Gene, Gene reacts with panic and an unconscious need to play the part of Judas in Phineas's life. Gene, the narrator...

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Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Despite several virtues—some good writing and good observations about how boys live at school—"Peace Breaks Out" suffers from its author having told such a similar story so much better before [in "A Separate Peace"]. A moral mystery of this kind requires, if not the first-person narration of the earlier version, then at least a unified point of view. I suspect Knowles once meant to provide one in the person of his teacher and at some point sensed that his teacher is too dull to sustain it. Worse, his story requires that the culprit go free—which means in this case that neither police nor coroner may take an interest in the victim. The particular strength of "A Separate Peace" lay in Knowles's inspired conception...

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Dick Abrahamson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It has been twenty years since Knowles' classic A Separate Peace first appeared. Now the author returns to Devon, that same New Hampshire boys' school, for his latest novel, Peace Breaks Out. While World War II provided the background for the Gene and Phineas story, in the new novel the war is over and a Devon graduate, Pete Hallam, returns from the war to teach history at the school. Devon serves as a place for Pete to rest and halt time a bit as he tries to sort out a broken marriage and the horror of the war. What Pete meets at Devon is a new group of teenagers who have been brought up with the war but now seem confused, upset, bewildered, and shortchanged because the war has ended and questions about...

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M. Jean Greenlaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Twenty-one years of real time have passed since John Knowles wrote his classic, A Separate Peace. Three years of novel time have passed with the emergence of the companion book Peace Breaks Out. It is 1945, the war is over, and Pete Hallam returns to Devon as an instructor. He needs to regain his perspective on life and recover from the war, his wounds, and a broken marriage. Hallam's attempt at a retreat is thwarted when two students clash in his first class in American history, and a power struggle is begun within the school. The ensuing violence is carefully and masterfully developed and is reflective of the horror that can occur when a talented leader misuses his/her ability and manipulates others....

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The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Knowles surely has been urged many times over the years to write a sequel to his most successful novel, the much admired A Separate Peace, set at the Exeter-like academy called Devon School. [Peace Breaks Out] is that sequel. Devon alumnus Pete Hallam has returned to his alma mater to teach, having survived the Second World War—just starting in the first book—in a prisoner-of-war camp. Knowles knows Devon's turf thoroughly, and, as in the earlier book, his keen eye for examining the ambitions and motivations of his student foils gives more than average interest to his tale. Yet his heart clearly isn't in this project, the attractive economical prose style of A Separate Peace here reduced to...

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