This was the first book I chose for my library book club (because you know I need another book club…) for some very specific reasons: It had several copies available in the system, it was not terribly long, and it was a book I thought I probably should have read by now.
And, in fact, yes, this is a book that I should have gotten around to long ago, but it was never required in school and so I hadn’t actually heard of it until maybe a few years ago. It’s an obvious precursor to many of my favorite novels and very likely to my absolute favorite movie, Dead Poets Society. Young boys in boarding school coming of age? That is totally my jam.
This particular boys-coming-of-age-at-boarding-school story takes place in New England shortly after the U.S. entered World War II and is narrated by an adult Gene looking back at his time on campus, particularly one terrible horrible no-good very bad year. In that year, Gene and his bffaeae Finny avoid thinking about the war by doing other foolish and dangerous things, all leading up to this one thing that happens that haunts Gene for the rest of his life.
And it’s pretty great. Most War-era books I’ve read have taken place in the middle of the war and especially in the middle of the fighting, so reading about these boys so close to going off to war but so removed from the war itself was really interesting to me. And of course there’s the whole boarding-school/high-school atmosphere of everything mattering oh so very much and the incomparable importance of friends and grades and sports, which I cannot help but love from afar.
Gene’s internal struggles are the true heart of the novel, though, and they are struggles that I can sadly understand. He spends a lot of the novel wondering whether his best friend is really a friend trying to make Gene a better person or actually an enemy trying to bring Gene down to lift himself up, and although it’s obvious that it’s the former, Gene is pretty convincing that it could be the latter. I found myself shouting at the book more than once, “Hey, idiot! Seriously! What is wrong with you?!” Oh, how glad I am that I never have to be sixteen again.
The big downside to reading this novel is that I have read and watched so many of its direct and indirect descendants, so some of the important twists and consequences of the novel were preeeeeeeetty obvious because I’d seen them before. But I really would never have seen Leper’s (yes, that’s a character’s name) storyline coming. Poor kid.
Recommendation: For fans of boarding-school coming-of-age novels and those who have ever been insecure.