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Everyone has had a friend like Phineas

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Back in the late 1960’s - long before many users of the internet were even born - a book was rediscovered. John Knowles’ A Separate Peace (Macmillan, 1959) is the story of summer session in 1942 at an exclusive New England boy’s school.

Written with the angst but not the cool of JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Knowles examined the relationships between adolescent boys forced to become men as World War II began to unfold and their lives would be turned upside down. Or possibly end.

The story focuses on two characters: Narrator Gene and his best and most admired friend Phineas. Gene is a geek. Thin, quiet and not at all athletic, he was good at school because he worked at it.

Phineas charmed his way through school and life. Incredibly good looking, athletic Phinny did everything right. Everyone wanted to be Phineas’ friend, and Gene had an impossible time believing he was. Most of the book is spent with Gene trying to convince himself and doing everything he can to destroy the relationship.

How many of us have had a friend like Phineas? My best friend’s pubescent “awkward” stage lasted an afternoon while mine lasted eleven years. All the boys thought she was beautiful and next to her, I was invisible. She had $100 a week allowance (in 1970!), went to private school, and the world was her oyster. This was how I saw her - everything she touched turned to gold.

Years later (she is still beautiful), I realized she also lost her mother to cancer when we were 14, had a sister who was institutionalized, and a brother who was a drug addict.

I thought of her as I reread the story of Gene and Phineas in the time before war would change the world. It is jealousy, insecurity, innocence lost, insight gained, and learning to know and appreciate the person you are. A journey most of us struggle with 40 years later. A less edgy book than The Catcher in the Rye, but more relatable. I’m not a confused New Yorker, and my friendships often run deep.

A Separate Peace is a modern classic and has been a best seller for more than thirty years. It was the first and best effort by Knowles. He died in 2001. Well worth the reread.

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