11/22/63 is Stephen King’s newest novel—it actually came out on my birthday this year. I was kind of expecting to get it as a birthday present, but it turned out to be an anniversary gift from my boyfriend (November 22 is our anniversary, actually). He gave it to me while we were in Niagara Falls, a trip we treated ourselves/each other to for our anniversary. As it turns out, that might not have been the best idea, because all I wanted to do was read—even though we were in Niagara Falls!
The story starts out pretty normally. Jake Epping, a thirty-something divorced high school English teacher, is struggling to get through grading some compositions he assigned to his GED class. He comes across one written by Harry Dunning, the school janitor, about the night his father killed his mother and siblings with a sledgehammer. Harry was the only one to escape alive, but with a limp and learning disability that would impact the rest of his life. Jake, moved to tears, gives Harry an A+ on his composition and takes Harry out to lunch after his GED graduation. They go to Al’s Diner, where Al, the proprietor, takes a photo of them and hangs it on his “Wall of Fame.”
A few years later, an incredibly run-down Al calls Jake and asks him to come to the diner, explaining that he has to tell him something that only he will believe. When Jake arrives, he is astounded to find Al thirty or forty pounds lighter than when he last saw him the day before. Al explains to an incredulous Jake that the diner’s pantry is a portal to 1958. When one enters through it, it’s always 11:58am on the morning of September 9, 1958, and when one returns to the present, it is always exactly two minutes later. Al has just returned from spending several years in the past on a mission to save JFK from assassination on November 22, 1963—a mission he cannot complete, because he has contracted lung cancer, and doesn’t have much longer to live.
And he wants Jake to take over his mission.
Now it’s up to Jake to save JFK, if he is willing to take on the mission. Part of him knows it’s crazy, but the other part—the part that kept listening when Al first told him that the diner was a portal to 1958—wants to do it. So Jake Epping becomes George Amberson and goes through Al’s pantry to begin a new life in 1958.
Let me start out by saying this is less a science fiction novel and more historical fiction, although it retains qualities of both. Yes, he time travels, but that’s really the extent of the science fiction; since Jake spends the majority of the book in the late 50s and early 60s, Stephen King had to do a huge amount of research to make it realistic. And that was really cool. But the best part, for me, was finding all the little inside jokes he put in there.
For example, when Jake first emerges into 1958, he passes by a mill, where there’s a 1958 red Plymouth Fury (i.e. Christine) sitting in the parking lot. Harry Dunning grew up in Derry, the setting of It, which Jake visits to attempt to save Harry and his family before making his way to Texas to prevent the JFK assassination. Oh, and Jake runs into Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier, and teaches them to swing dance. So. Awesome. I wish I could go meet Stephen King so I could give him an elbow nudge and say, “I see what you did there.” Also, he references my favorite Ray Bradbury story, A Sound of Thunder, which is also about time travel.
Those little winks and nudges were absolutely my favorite part of the book. I also loved that Jake loves to swing dance, because I love to swing dance. I just really liked Jake’s character overall. Definitely a smart guy, but also seemed like a big, bumbling sweetheart a lot of the time. One of those characters that I kind of just want to hug, you know?
The story was terrific as well. Jake’s growing obsession with Oswald and his family life was realistic and raw, and his struggles as a man of 2011 trying to fit in 50 years before his time were definitely plausible, especially all the expressions he uses without thinking (even things like “cool”). And of course the love interest was intriguing and turned out to be better than I thought it would be—when the book jacket advertised that he falls “dangerously in love,” I thought it would probably be dumb, but it wasn’t! Yay.
I will warn you, though, that the last few chapters are devastating. I can’t tell you why, but they are. If I wasn’t such a non-crier I would have cried. I almost cried. But I was reading in the car and that makes me feel bad enough as it is, so crying would have just made it worse. But seriously. The book was great, but don’t read it if you don’t like sadness. The very end was bittersweet, and I know things can’t always end perfectly, but ARGH.
I’m conflicted as to whether or not I’ll read this again. It was great, and it was a really emotional experience for me (more than I had expected) but…there are some books that you can read over and over, despite knowing the end, and there are some that you can’t. I think this is one of the ones you can’t read again after knowing the ending, because I know it doesn’t end the way I wanted it to. I’m sure I’ll read it again eventually, but not for a while…once it’s not so raw. But if you haven’t read it, you definitely should!by