Sunday, January 1, 2012
ON NOVEMBER 22, 1963, THREE SHOTS RANG OUT IN DALLAS, PRESIDENT KENNEDY DIED, AND THE WORLD CHANGED. WHAT IF YOU COULD CHANGE IT BACK?
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.
Normally I am not a big Stephen King fan, his books are too scary for me. I have read some of his fantasy, non-horror stuff, such as the first few books of his Gunslinger Series, but that's about it. When I heard about this book and that it was about time-travel and the 1960's - it sold me! It's one of my favorite eras, having grown up during this time, the youngest of a large family. When I look back on my earliest memories, the early '60's seemed like an idyllic time. I was too young to remember JFK's assassination, but I do remember Bobby's and Martin Luther King's. Before those tragic events, days were long and lazy, before the escalation of Viet Nam and the race riots in Newark - which were not far from where I grew up. For me, as I was about to start first grade, summers were endless, catching lightning bugs at dusk before bed without a care in the world except for maybe the occasional worry about learning how to read in the upcoming school year and if I'd like my new teacher. I associate those days with the music on the radio as well: Petula Clark's "Downtown, " the Young Rascals "Groovin'" as well as any number of Beatles songs (my sisters were avid Beatlemaniacs).
Is it any wonder I ate this book up like candy? On audio it was spellbinding. Craig Wasson, an actor that I only know from his role in the movie, Body Double, did a fantastic job of narrating the novel in the first person as the protagonist, Jake Epping. He does a myriad of voices for the many characters in the book. As much as some may think it gimmicky, he used impersonations of well known Hollywood actors for some of the characters. I recognized Jack Nicholson (as Frank Dunning, Harry's father). Burt Lancaster and Jimmy Stewart popped up as well. I liked it! It brought the book to life, as if I were listening to a movie that left nothing out from the book! An ideal situation! I had a similar reaction when reading The Help. Wasson also does women's voices as well - I loved the soft southern drawl of Jake's love interest, Sadie, as well as Miz Mimi and Ellen Dockerty.
11/22/63 brings back many yesteryear memories. I won't go over the whole plot, which you can read in the book description above, but King weaves a fabulous story of how Jake Epping travels back in time to 1958 to undo certain events that created misery for people he knew personally or knew of. The book is broken up into parts, beginning in Maine, then Florida and ultimately to Jodie, Texas where the bulk of the book takes place not far from Dallas leading up to the assassination attempt on Kennedy. It's a great, great time travel story that lets us experience life in the late '50's and early '60's from Maine to Texas through Jake's eyes and especially as he falls in love with a young school librarian, Sadie Dunhill.
His time in Jodie and his relationship with Sadie was especially satisfying to read. It's the one romantic element to the book, but not overly done. I consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of romance ;) and I found no issues with King's sex scenes - though I believe the book made it onto some Bad Sex in Fiction Award short list for 2011. Pay no attention, they're tasteful and pretty tame compared to what I've read elsewhere. Plus, he's given me a new appreciation for pound cake. I'll always have a smile on my face when I have some from now on. ;)
While in Jodie, Jake takes on the persona of George Amberson, a substitute teacher at the local high school. A highlight of the novel for me is when he is directing the school play "Of Mice and Men." On audio is was great as he describes opening night and the audience's reaction to the young star of the play - Mike Coslaw. Wonderful! Wonderful! I get teary eyed just thinking of Lenny and George... His characters are well drawn, real people to me. I miss them and I was involved with their lives. Jake/George made many friends in Jodie and it was a good life he had there for a while...
But as we get closer to November of 1963, the plot turns gritty and menacing - the past is obdurate. The bigger the event that is to be changed, the more obstacles time sets up to prevent it. I was on the edge of my seat wondering what calamity was going to prevent Jake from fulfilling his goal. Lee Oswald and his wife Marina are now center stage and the focus of the book. Would he be able to pull it off - can he stop the Kennedy assassination and if so, what will happen to the future if he does? That is the $65,000 question. If Jake stops the assassination, how will it change events in the future, and will he even be able to return to 2011? And what about Sadie? Can he leave her behind? Can he risk bringing her back with him to an uncertain world of 2011? Will it be that much different?
I'm leaving a ton out so as not to spoil the book for those of you who want to read it. It's epic-like, Jake's many tasks and journey from Derry, Maine (the same evil, dark and dank town as in his novel, It) to Dallas takes us on a roller coaster ride. Some critics have said this is a self-indulgent chance for King to write a book and spout off on his feelings about Viet Nam, etc., but I say, ignore all that and read it for the entertainment alone and don't think too hard about what the author's intentions were. I say he wanted to write a time travel novel and it's one of the best I've ever read - and I've read many. Although, as good as it was, there were a few things that bugged me about it, the book wasn't perfect after all. There were some similarities to another great time travel novel, Replay by Ken Grimwood and towards the ending, it tended to ramble and go on and on. I also found the ending a little overly sentimental and bittersweet. But, overall, I can overlook these minor matters. I just simply loved it and even gave it to my husband and brother for Christmas!
Nothing like starting the new year off with a five star review! This was a fabulous, memorable book! Don't miss it, and on audiobook it's amazing!
P.S. I love the "what if" back cover in the hardcover!