Plot summary (from the publisher): In this brilliantly conceived tour de force, Stephen King—who has absorbed the social, political, and popular culture of his generation more imaginatively and thoroughly than any other writer—takes readers on an incredible journey into the past and the possibility of altering it.
It begins with Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away—a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than fifty years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer. Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life—like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963—turning on a dime. Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading eventually, of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and where history might not be history anymore. Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.
Warning: MAJOR spoilers below!
- Jake was a mostly good character with whom to go on this journey. Sure, he was fairly vanilla (especially for a King protag), but at least he didn’t have too many annoying traits that would get on my nerves in a book this long. I liked him and was rooting for him to succeed.
- Despite the book’s length and some boring spots, King still has a knack for making readers want to turn the page. I finished this one in just a few days because, yes, it was that engrossing.
- The shoutouts to IT and Richie/Beverly were AWESOME!!!
- When this book was first published, I had zero interest in reading it because I’m just not into the whole Kennedy assassination/Lee Harvey Oswald/CIA conspiracy theory thing. I couldn’t really get past the title of this one and didn’t investigate further. But then I saw some random comment thread on Reddit that talked a bit more about the plot and decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did, because actually the JFK thing was more of a MacGuffin than not. It was the driving force behind the protag’s action, but wasn’t front and center the whole time. Good deal!
- King’s time travel scenario actually felt plausible. I tend to stay away from books that contain these supernatural elements (and sci-fi is a definite no-no for me), but King didn’t get bogged down in details or try to explain how this “bubble” to the past would even be possible. I guess some folks might consider that weasling out; but I trusted King (he’s earned it for sure) and just went with the flow. I wasn’t disappointed.
- I thought there was way too much time spent on the minutiae of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life in the period leading up to 11/22/63. Obviously King had to get him involved in the story somehow, but all the arguments with his wife about banal things, the descriptions of his job, his daily routine, etc. just felt like filler in a book that didn’t need the extra pages.
- I wasn’t that invested in Sadie or the love story. As this turned out to be the major plot point, it was a big miss for me.
- I didn’t like the ending at all. The shithole the world turned into as a result o JFK being saved made Jake’s choice to reset time and save Sadie way too easy. Who wouldn’t do that? King should have made the “JFK lives” timeline a utopia so Jake would have to struggle with doing what’s best for the country or for just one person.
I actually went in to 11/22/63 not expecting to like it very much. I thought it would be too full of JFK’s presidency, possible conspiracy theories, and LHO’s life. But that didn’t turn out to be the case at all. It was more about Jake Epping struggling to find his place in time and to do what was “right” given the hindsight that he had as a man from the future. The book was captivating and the characters’ motivations convincing. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.