Book: A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Library book

I was always going to like this book. Bitter, resentful Gene and his charismatic, mercurial friend Finny, the year that changed their lives and ended Finny’s, and the war that rages outside their little world. I love that Gene can’t reconcile for himself how much he cared about Finny with how he ruined Finny’s life. I love how all the characters are so unstable and angry, how Gene’s envy takes over his life, Brinker’s ambivalence, Leper’s inability to handle the war.

And of course, it’s not just their secret summer at Devon. The threat of the war outside, that they alternately long for and deny existence of, hangs over the story. You can’t get away from the mid 1940s setting and how that means for these boys in a remote boarding school in America the war is both omnipresent and too distant to be believed. So much is shaped by the war pressing in on them (Leper’s breakdown, Gene’s underwhelming memories of his time after enlisting). And yet so much of the dark heart of the story is caused by the trauma and ennui of youth, of a time when everything awful is so much more intense than it will every be again.

Review: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Acquired how: bought paperback

It’s interesting that even when I don’t especially enjoy a book I can still admire much of the writing. So it is with Jane Eyre, a work of classic literature that is so not my scene.

It started okay – the beginning with the Reeds and at the Lowood institute rather reminded me of Dickens, whose work I’ve enjoyed. I especially liked the last chapter with Helen Burns which was note perfect. I don’t think that chapter could have been better written. It was magnificently done. I also very much admire the chapter wherein Jane returns to Gateshead and deals with her family – there is so much to enjoy about the writing there and Bronte’s sharp eyed view of her characters.

Ah, but Rochester. What an absolute tool. He has so many many awful personality defects that I didn’t find in the least charming. He’s manipulative and cruel, to both Jane and Blanche Ingram. He’s self absorbed. He struggles to take responsibility for his own actions. I feel like I can deal with that Byronic Hero character type much easier when the character is a vampire, werewolf or other such horrible creature of the night, but when the character is just a regular (if wealthy) man I find it anywhere from aggravating to abhorrent.

And that’s not to mention my thoughts on all the untranslated French! A choice, I’ll note, I’m very glad is not common in novels today.

The only thing that saves the Rochester-Jane romance for me is that after Jane leaves Thornfield she meets the Rivers’ family, and St John Rivers is somehow even more annoying. There’s nothing like telling a woman she’s letting god down by not marrying you to make yourself seem like the worst option.

After that, when Jane returns to Rochester, whose power has wained as hers has risen, but whose sharp wit has not lessened any, it feels a relief. He may be a dickhead, but at least he’s not a sanctimonious dickhead.

Of course, Jane Eyre is a tremendously influential novel. Reading it was interesting at least in part because I realised how many popular tropes surviving today can be traced back to gothic novels such as this one. In that light, even reading the parts of the book I found to be a bit of a slog, still had value.

After over 150 years, nobody really needs to be swayed one way or another into reading this book – even you want to or you don’t (or you have to because of a school assignment), but we all know the basic plot points. Everybody knows about the mad wife in the attic. There’s something to be said for reading literary classics and understanding how they’ve influenced literature since their publication. Given that, I don’t regret reading this book. I didn’t love it but I felt pushing through it was worth it.