On his deathbed, Jake Epping’s friend Al introduces him to a secret portal in his pantry which leads to 1958, and subsequently enlists Jake to prevent the JFK assassination in ’63. Jake complies, and under the alias George Amberson, he joins a cigarette-hazed world of rock ‘n’ roll and racial discrimination. As the fateful date - 11/22/63 - approaches, Jake begins his surveillance on suspected culprit of John Kennedy’s slaughter - Lee Harvey Oswald, but he also meets a beautiful librarian named Sadie. Will his new love interfere with his crucial role on 11/22/63?
First of all, a warning to those who expect 11/22/63 to be a horror novel, or similar: it’s not. Nor is it a novel much about time travel or the JFK assassination really, despite the misleading title and premise. It is ultimately a romance novel; at least, it is once Jake finally meets Sadie, about 300 pages in. This can be good or bad, depending on you, but for me this was a big negative. Up until Sadie’s entrance, 11/22/63 is a lot of nothing, with a little time travel, and a lot of references to King’s other novels, which fans are likely to enjoy, as I did. Most notable are references to It: some of the novel is set in Derry, and Jake spends several pages in a conversation with Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier in the Autumn of 1958, shortly after the events of It have taken place. Christine - the eponymous bloodthirsty ’58 Plymouth Fury - makes an appearance too.
Despite not knowing too much about American history, the premise of 11/22/63 intrigued me. It’s such a clever idea, but the time travel aspect is not explored in enough detail and feels like a wasted opportunity. The romance trumps time travel and JFK, forcing those elements into the back seat while it takes centre stage. I'm not very tolerant of overblown romance in books as a general rule, but I can enjoy it if it’s done well. Unfortunately, I did not like Jake and Sadie’s relationship: it’s very sickly sweet and cringe-worthy, for example the part when the couple first have sex:
‘“Sadie? All right?” “Ohmygodyes,” she said and I laughed. She opened her eyes and looked up at me with curiosity and hopefulness. “Is it over, or is there more?”“A little more,” I said. “I don’t know how much. I haven’t been with a woman in a long time.”It turned out there was quite a bit more ... At the end she began to gasp. “Oh dear, oh my dear, oh my dear dear God, oh sugar!”’
Perhaps my biggest gripe about 11/22/63 though is the sheer size of it in comparison to the amount of interesting events; my copy is 740 pages long. The problem with Al’s time portal transporting Jake to 1958 means that he has to wait for five years until he can attempt to put a stop to the assassination; this means that not much happens for a long time, and much of what does happen is boring and not relevant to the plot. It only started to get interesting for me around the 400 page mark, but even then I wasn’t hooked. I kept reading because I wanted to know if Jake would manage to prevent the assassination in the end, and what the upshot of this would be.
It probably sounds like I really hated 11/22/63; I didn’t, but it was certainly a disappointment. If I could pick one word to describe it, I would choose ‘frustrating’ - it is bloated, slow, and centres on a gooey love story when I wanted more on time travel and the implications of it. This aspect is highly misleading considering the title of the book and the way in which it has been marketed. Nonetheless, when the fateful day finally arrives, it is interesting, tense and action-packed, and as with all of King’s works it is well written. King had some great ideas here, but I feel he took them in the wrong direction.