Within the setting of an exclusive New England boys school, John Knowles writes a masterful novel of two young men of contrasting personalities and the events that change their lives forever. In the ever-present background is the approach of World War II, which colors everyone’s thinking as students and teachers realize that in a short time, these boys will be part of it.
Dating from 1959, the novel was a best-seller for decades and considered by some to be a classic. Its continuing importance in high school curricula is proven by the fact it is still available in CliffsNotes. It was copyrighted again in 1987.
Gene, who narrates the story, is, studious and introverted. The story begins with his visit back to the school 15 years after leaving. His memory recalls the earlier story, with shifts backward and then forward to the present. Basically conservative and conforming, Gene is fascinated by his irreverent, daredevil roommate, Phineas, known as Finny. To Finny, the school’s regulations and routines are unimportant, meant to be broken if he can think of something more exciting or outrageous to replace them. No great student, he relies on his good looks, charm and athleticism to get by. In more than one scene, he cleverly talks his way out of a teacher’s intent to punish him for some infraction. Meanwhile he keeps the less confident Gene off balance by proclaiming that they are best friends and then presenting him with a sudden major challenge, such as proclaiming that Gene is to train for the Olympics, with Finny directing his training.
This rigorous physical regimen comes after an accident that ends Finny’s athletic career. If he can’t compete, he reasons, Gene will take his place.The incident, involving both boys, and its aftermath is an integral part of the book, exploring the depths of each’s character. The fictional school, called Devon, is described in great detail down to buildings, teachers, playing fields and common areas. (The author was a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy.)
There is an underlying tension as the school year proceeds and it’s clear that something horrendous is going to take place.The unforeseen ending makes this well-written novel memorable. One thing I liked very much is that the author concentrates on his two major characters, plus a sprinkling of other boys and a few teachers, so that we really get into the characters Gene and Finny and how they fared as the unsettling events of the book unfold.
John Knowles wrote eight other books, including a collection of short stories. He died in 2001.