Here is the quick plot. Jake Epping is a divorced English teacher in Maine in the present. He is a good guy, good teacher, and is happy with his life. One day when he goes to visit his friend Al at Al's diner, Jake is concerned. The diner says it is now closed forever. He saw Al just yesterday and Al said nothing about this. Jake find Al inside the diner, but the man looks as though he has aged years and is very ill. Al explains that in the diner's store room there is actually a portal to 1958. When you enter the portal and return, you have only been gone for 2 minutes in the real world, no matter how long you were gone in the past.
Al had just returned from being in the past for years, trying to stay long enough to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK, but he got cancer and would never make it to 11/22/63. He knew his only hope was to come back, pass on everything he knew to Jake and convince Jake to take up the cause.
What follows is the story of Jake's trip, as George Amberson, into the world of 1958 and beyond. There are a few test trips, but most of the book follows the details of the the one that leads him to Dallas on the morning of 11/22/63.
If I had to say only one sentence about this book here is what it would be-- It doesn't matter if you are someone who doesn't usually like Stephen King or if you are someone who does not care about the Kennedy assassination, but if you are simply someone who enjoys a well told, compelling story full of action, great characters, and a realistic historical frame, read this book right now.
Look, I like King and I was still shocked at how much I loved this book. I was hooked by Jake as a character from page 1. The time travel angle was also handled in a very realistic way.
The story is methodically paced because after a fast start, we are mostly waiting, with Jake, for the years to go by. As a result, the majority of the book is a historical piece of Jake's life during that time but with the suspense and drama of Oswald and his impending date with history. Even though it moves slower than your average thriller, you keep turning the pages because you know, like Jake, what is coming on 11/22/63. While in this middle part, I for one, was happy to become lost in King's recreation of the time and place, but other readers might be expecting more action.
I do not want to give away much of the plot. I am glad I heard nothing more than "you need to read this book as long as you like good stories," before I read it.
"The Past", in capital letters, is a character here. It is the main villain actually, more than Oswald, and it is not until after the assassination is stopped that we see the full fury and evil "The Past" can throw at us. "The Past" is constantly after Jake and this adds a chilling and menacing aspect to the novel.
Here are a couple of other appeal terms that perfectly describe why you would want to read this book: character driven, intricately plotted, atmospheric, dark, psychological, scary without traditional horror elements, fascinating, beautiful, heart-breaking, bittersweet.
For fans of King I should also note that Derry, Maine, the nefarious town featured in many of his other novels (most notably IT), has a supporting role here. As other reviewers have mentioned, you do not need to have read anything else by Stephen King to understand that something is very wrong in the fabric of this small town, but if you do have the King back list knowledge, it enhances the story.
I am also happy to report that 11/22/63 is not only a great read, but it has one of THE BEST endings for a book that I have ever read. I listened to this novel (more on that below) and as I was reaching the last tracks, the clock was nearing midnight. I could not stop though. Instead, I sat alone in my dark kitchen by the light of the iPod, staring at my reflect in the window, simply riveted. With so many great books that have left me disappointed with mediocre endings, I was elated to find the complete package here. It was a perfectly written, captivating, bittersweet ending that summed up the entire tome in a small intimate scene.
Many people have asked me if 11.22.63 should now become a first stop for people new to King. I think I still lean toward "no." The Shining is still the best introduction to the bulk of his work and The Stand is still his masterpiece (but at over 1,500 pages, it is too long for a newcomer). However, if you don't like horror and want to try King, this is a great book to "start" with.
Returning to the audio experience, 11.22.63 is narrated by Craig Wasson who I had also heard reading the 2 male narrated novella's in King's Full Dark, No Stars. Wasson is steady, and since the entire book is written as if it is Jake's confessional/memoir, Wasson became Jake for me. When I would return to the audio, it was like I was catching up with an old friend. Wasson confidently inhabited Jake and gave convincing voices for the other characters. Wasson also portrayed the ranges of Jake's emotions well, and he goes through a full spectrum of them from elation to despair to anger and everything in between. Wasson also has a good sense of the cadence of King's prose, which is probably why he has done a few King books. Click here to hear an excerpt. The book is a long one, as is the audio: 30 hours and 44 minutes. But honestly, I did not want it to ever end.
Three Words That Describe This Book: time-travel, nostalgic, chilling
Readalikes: For readers who want to be immersed further into the 1950s, I would suggest The Fifties by David Halberstam. I read this book years ago and I still remember it.
In terms of the time travel aspects, NoveList suggests This Shared Dream by Kathleen Ann Goonan:
"Although This Shared Dream has a more relaxed pace than 11/22/63, both alternate histories evoke the sights and sounds of mid-20th-century America as they explore the consequences of using time travel to influence events -- particularly the assassination of JFK."I would also suggest the novels of Connie Willis. In her books, the time travel sets up a book with some suspense and a healthy dose of historical frame.
The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Carter is an interesting readalike option here. Click here to see why in my reading map for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
I also feel like American Gods by Neil Gaiman has the same epic feel and features a regular, flawed guy who stumbles upon the power to change the future of the world.
I listened to 11.22.63 back-to-back with 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I am not yet sure if they have a similar feel independently from each other, or I just think that because of how I encountered them. I will explore that in more detail when I complete my review of 1Q84 in the coming days. But both are methodically paced epic works by trusted storytellers that feature parallel realities.
Finally, from my new update of the Stephen King Readalike article on Novelist:
Another genre blending author is Dan Simmons, but with Simmons you can get any combination of horror, science fiction, suspense, thriller and historical fiction. Atmosphere drives his novels, with a deliberate pacing that allows the tension to build so intensely that it makes readers squirm. Like King, Simmons’ focus is on his characters. He includes interesting and thought-provoking details about real science and/or history in his books, and then adds a twist of dark, otherworldly elements. Try Flashback, a combination science fiction, near future dystopia, and psychological suspense story of a flawed man who is trying both to right his life and save America from nefarious forces.Click here for my detailed review of Flashback. It is a great readalike option here.