Romance? I know. I can hear the tumult of the masses lurching in defiance from here. Since when does EBR review romance novels? Answer: since King started writing them while his publisher was marketing them as otherwise. There was nothing even remotely romance-related to this book that I came across prior to getting into its pages. Not on the outer cover, not inside the cover, not in any official summary of the book. Not anywhere. In fact, despite everything that made my deductive reasoning lean toward the contrary, I didn’t even fully accept that the book was a romance until the very end. Not until the last sentence of the book.
And did that bother me? Immensely so.
11/22/63 (Amazon) is another recent offering in Stephen King’s literal plethora of novels. I’ve been a fan of his for a couple decades now, and in that time I’ve been a constant reader through the highs and the lows, the weirds and the whats, and the absolute genius that is Mr. King. My excitement for this novel was no less, and perhaps even a bit more (outside of the Dark Tower novels) than it had been for any other of his books. In this book, our main character, Jake Epping, a divorced high-school teacher and frequent facilitator of adult GEDs, becomes privy to the existence of a hole in time that connects his “when” in 2011 to a “then” in 1958. This allows for an eventual connection between Mr. Epping and one of the largest, most impactful events to hit the giant that is America, and even the chance to make a difference by keeping that single event–the assassination of John F. Kennedy on 11/22/63–from ever occurring.
If the premise alone wasn’t enough to lock me in, the first few chapters made it a literal improbability that I might not love this story. The amount of character development threaded through the introduction of Jake Epping and his friend, the severely handicapped janitor, Harry Dunning, was incredible. From this launching point, Jake takes a test trip to see if changes he makes when going through this time hole will translate to changes in the present day, and then back into the hole again to head for the date most pivotal to the crux of the novel.
The first portion of the novel was nearly perfect, in my estimation, and encompasses the story of the test trip through time and Jake’s subsequent return. It hits you hard early on, moves fast toward the point of conflict, and pays off in a big way. This section of the book could probably have been retained by itself, marketed as a true-to-form thriller, and it would have done just fine. Simply amazing. But all of this was just the ramp-up for the real thrust of the novel: the drive toward 11/22/63 and saving JFK. I couldn’t wait.
But this was where the novel began to get… difficult. The inception of the idea that became this novel came to King decades ago, but he ultimately dropped it because of the amount of historical research that he felt he’d need to do in order to do the novel right, and the amount of research that he finally did accomplish is very apparent here. For so many potential readers, the late 50’s and early 60’s America portrayed in the novel will be a world as foreign as that of Middle Earth, and King does a very good job of relaying that world to us. It was here that Jake’s drive toward the “end goal” started to get fuzzy. It was a very gradual change, and moved the plot from being focused on Lee Harvey Oswald, the supposed perpetrator in the assassination, to being focused upon the world in which Jake was living. The research, as they often say, took over the story. After a good spell of this, the plot moved yet another step away from where it started through the introduction of a love interest, Sadie Dunhill, and Mr. Oswald gradually receded from view until he became something akin to a minor side plot.
Until, of course, the end rolled around, where the main characters are all running their hearts out to make it to the assassination on time, and there’s a whirlwind “climax”, an explanation of how everything works (including a horrifically blatant plot hole that nearly killed me), and…
Ta da! I’m a romance novel!
At which point in time, I wanted to throw the book to the dogs, but I had already finished the dang thing and even the thought of doing such was supremely unsatisfying. I’d been tricked! Duped! I thought I’d gotten myself into a great novel. I thought I’d found a winner. But instead, the novel ended up being nothing like what it had purported itself to be at the beginning. The really irksome part of all this is that even books that are horribly written with crappy characters and wandering, pointless plots will end up being the same book that they started out being. So why not this one?
11/22/63 is the sneakiest romance novel you didn't realize you were reading. Starts out as a thriller and could have been so much more. Broken promises.
If this book had ended the story that it started, it probably would have been amazing. Of this I have little doubt. If the book had begun the way that it ended, I would have never picked it up. Again, of this I have little doubt. Instead of either of these, what I got was a horrible mish-mash of awesome sauce and an are-you-kidding-me switch-a-roo that left me more frustrated than a single father chasing his black-marker-weilding three-year-old sextuplets through the Church of the White Nun.
One of my least favorite reads of the year. By far.
- Recommended Age: 16+
- Language: Infrequent, but consistent. Pretty low-key for a King novel, but it IS a King novel in this regard.
- Violence: Very violent and gory in parts
- Sex: Frequent references, most quite mild for King, does detail the early moments of one scene
Stephen King's novels have always been about the characters even more than the scares. Let's be honest, how many times does Pennywise even appear in IT? How about Under the Dome? It makes sense if you were frustrated initially by the major love story plot point, but since we know from the outset that Jake is going to have to wait years for the date of the assassination, it would ring untrue if he didn't try to make some kind of life for himself in the interim period. My guess is this is why you put it in the “Don't Like” section instead of the “Hate” one, but it still feels a little unjustified, plot hole and all.
@TheWriter: I don't usually “hate” a book unless it has poor story elements AND is horribly written. This book is far from horribly written, however, and so it really never had any chance of getting our lowest rating from me.
I actually have no doubt that there will be tons of people that will absolutely love this book. Most of those will probably readers that ended up falling in love with the portrayal of small-town life in late-fifties America and the romance story that capped the book. Both of these aspects of the book were very well done. They just weren't what was advertised (in the slightest) until they were thrust upon me midway through the book, and thus this one gets my ire. I got cheated, and it felt like I had wasted a large majority of the time I gave toward reading it.
Sorry if my rating feels unjustified. It rings perfectly true for me.
Thanks for the comments, by the way. Love to hear from our readers. 🙂
Thanks for this heads up. Maybe knowing this going in, will give me a different opinion in the end? My friend is reading it & it's keeping her up at night, reading. I wasn't going to read it because I'm not a JFK fan. Rather the politics, etc. of the time.
Thanks for your candor. 😀 Appreciated as always. 😀
As often as he absolutely nails the character development sometimes I feel Stephen looses the story in it. I often wonder how some of his books would turn out with a hard line editor keeping tabs. Under the dome, it could of been a truly great novel, the same with this. If only we had that influence cutting out the meanders he sometimes lets stories turn into.
I always feel like King starts a novel super excited, and that excitement translates into some incredible beginnings. But about half-way through, it always seems like he loses steam and kinda stops caring. It's a bummer, because the beginnings are usually stunning.