Somehow I’d never read a Stephen King book before. This one is an exciting, plot-driven page-turner, but in retrospect was not entirely satisfying; the end, in particular, is cliché and predictable.
The premise: Jake Epping, high school English teacher and aspiring novelist, is recruited by a dying acquaintance, Al, who has a portal to 1958 in his pantry. Al has made stopping the Kennedy assassination his life’s work, and Jake agrees to take over for him, although it means spending years in the past.
Plot is this book’s greatest strength; although it’s over 840 pages long, it kept me enthralled throughout. Each of the six sections has its own rising action and climax, and there’s some truly heart-pounding action. The time-travel setup is interesting and well-thought-out, resulting in a sensible plot with almost no holes, a rarity for a time-travel book. I did think Jake ought to have considered just killing Oswald immediately and returning to the present to see if that stopped the assassination, rather than waiting around for years to make sure Oswald implicated himself first. Yes, that's much easier said than done and I don't expect Jake would have wanted to murder someone who might have been innocent, even knowing he could undo it, but it seems like something he should have thought of. Also, using coincidences everywhere and excusing them by making coincidence a theme is lazy.
I didn’t begin the book with any particular interest in the historical events around which it revolves, but King does an excellent job in weaving the history into the novel in an engaging way; I had even less interest in Oswald trivia, but Oswald and his family and associates are actually the book's most vivid and lifelike characters.
Which is unfortunate, since 11/22/63 is really about Jake, not Oswald or Kennedy. Jake reads like an authorial self-insert, and while his voice rings true, his mission is far more interesting than he is. I found myself rooting for him because he’s the hero, but as a character, he’s on the bland side. His love interest, Sadie, is worse: your typical action-story girlfriend, who’s called brave loudly and often but who always comes down with a case of damsel-in-distress at the worst moment. Puh-lease, what woman, living alone, would come home to see her house had been broken into and trashed and then just go inside and start looking around? Without ever thinking of calling the police first or at least finding someone to accompany her? Also, at the Texas School Book Depository, Jake beats Sadie in the race up the stairs even though he's severely injured and can't walk without crutches, and she's healthy. I get that he's supposed to be heroic, but in that condition, keeping up with her would've been heroic. Beating her significantly just makes her look pathetic.
(This book has more than its share of distressed damsels, and men rescuing or “avenging” them.) Many reviewers have loved their romance, which occupies a large chunk of the book, but while I didn’t actively dislike it, I never saw any particular reason for these two characters to be together or got invested in their story.
The settings are vividly drawn; King uses detail well to build atmosphere, and the Derry section in particular is creepy. The historical period comes vibrantly to life, rich with sensory detail, and Jake's culture shock in the "Land of Ago" is consistently entertaining. He does at times get off easily, though; Jake's 35 when he travels to 1958, which would have made him part of the generation that came of age during World War II, but somehow no one ever asks him about his war service or references any of the shared culture from the period that he missed. Additionally, for all the talk of cigarette smoke everywhere, King's rendering of the times is quite nostalgic. Racism is barely mentioned; Jake sees one whites-only restroom and hears a couple of racist rants, but we never see an actual person affected by segregation or hatred.
Despite everything, this book is just so enjoyable that up until the last 100 pages, I expected to give 4 stars. Admittedly, reaction to the ending is a matter of personal taste: I am not a science fiction reader and am far more interested in the potential alternate history than the effects of time travel on the space-time continuum. I also find moralizing about changing the past uninteresting, since time travel is purely fantasy anyway. Throughout the book, I suspected King would end it as he did and hoped I was wrong--sadly, I wasn’t. The apocalyptic scenario is totally over-the-top, and overshadows all the alternate history. I am much more interested in "what would have happened if JFK had lived?" than "would time-travelers reversing a major historical event destroy the world?" And that old saw, "you can't change the past" is such a cliché even to somebody like me who avoids SF--King pulls a bait-and-switch, showing us early on that you can change the past, but then pulling back and resorting to this almost moralizing thing whose appeal I just don't understand.
Thus, my final reaction is mixed. Despite its length, the book maintains suspense and tension throughout. And readers who enjoy science fictional elements more than I do are likely to appreciate the finale. As a historical thriller, the book is not perfect, but it is a lot of fun.