I finished this book soon after it came out, and have been meaning to write an in-depth review ever since. Spending a lot of time into writing a Stephen King review seems unnecessary, for a couple of reasons.
First, he’s Stephen King, one of the most popular fiction writers of our time. Thousands of reviews of this book exist already. Every major critic has it covered. If you want to get a sense whether this is for you, if it’s one of King’s better books (it is), or if it’s one of his scary ones (it isn’t), there are lots of opinions out there.
The second reason, more important, is that most readers have already made up their minds about King. Many love him, and read everything he writes, so they don’t care what I have to say. Others say his fiction lacks complexity, it’s low-brow, non-literary. These wouldn’t give the latest from King a try no matter what the critics say, let alone me.
Rather than an actual review, though, I do have a few things I want to say about this book. It’s a great story, worth a read for those with even the slightest interest in King’s storytelling, or those interested in American history, particularly JFK’s era. That’s this story’s hook: a chance to go back and change the events of Kennedy’s assassination. The trick is, 11/22/63 turns out to be about memory, about second chances, and more than anything else, love.
The critics who say King’s fiction lacks complexity are right to a certain degree, but they’re also missing the point. The great thing he does is tell a story that feels genuine, like real experience. His characters are engaging, natural, easily likable. Most of his books, no matter where they’re set or what kind of characters inhabit them, feel like a similar experiences. This aspect is mentioned by pretty much everyone who reads King’s work, so if you’ve read him, you probably know what I mean. Stephen King books, pretty much all of them, feel like a place you want to go visit.
If you’ve read Stephen King and enjoy him at all, the only thing you need to know about 11/22/63 is that it stands among his best books, and certainly among the top few of the past twenty years.
If you don’t like King much, or have somehow not bothered to read anything of his before, this is the one book I’d suggest might be worth checking out. Real King haters probably won’t be won over, but there’s a remarkable sensitivity to his writing about a romantic relationship which might convince readers who were on the fence. Those who might have wanted to give King a try but never wanted to go for the straight horror stuff, this is your chance. 11/22/63 is alternate history, it’s fantasy in the style of Twilight Zone, and it feels authentic despite these aspects. A few harsh events occur, but they’re presented realistically, not horror-style.
I do wish he could be persuaded to let someone edit him more closely. While the sentence-level writing is just fine, at times the story bogs down and nothing seems to happen for dozens of pages. As with his last two major books, trimming a quarter of the length would have made for a better novel.
Much has been made of King striving for critical recognition, for acknowledgment of the stylistic improvement of his prose and the increasing sensitivity and naturalism of his writing. I’d say he should be commended for trying something much harder than the easy cash-in. Many (most?) authors would have taken the easy path. Instead King is taking chances and achieving things many considered beyond him. I’m impressed, and quite enjoyed this book.