I remember reading somewhere (probably in his memoir On Writing) that Stephen King subjects early drafts of his manuscripts to a little test: he’ll put a copy in the hands of his wife, a cherished Ideal Reader, and monitor her reactions as she reads. If there’s a passage he means to be funny, and hopes will make his Ideal Reader laugh, he’ll cross his fingers and hope she will validate his efforts with said laughter. Likewise, and more significantly in my mind, King will shrewdly observe when his Ideal Reader puts the book down to do something else. Then he will note that part, go back into it, and ratchet things up to keep the reader reading and make the book even harder to put down.
This is the first sentiment that comes to mind after finishing 11/22/63, King’s novel about an English teacher who goes back in time in attempt to prevent the JFK assassination. Though the book is a veritable tome at 849 pages (I’ll be honest: probably the longest I have read since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), the story flies. There is constant tension. The protagonist always wants something and there are always obstacles to getting it. There are trials. Stakes. Consequences. This book puts into practice everything I have learned about creating a gripping storyline, and then some.
That said, I come away from 11/22/63 as both a reader and writer with a profound admiration for King’s seamless storytelling. If it’s clean prose and a gripping story you’re looking for, King is your man.
As a reader, the element I am most interested in discussing with this particular book is the ending. That said, WARNING: the rest of this post contains spoilers of 11/22/63! Do Not Read unless you want significant portions of the ending given away!
Still there? OKAY. The ending. This is something I’m going to try and look at from both the reader and writer perspectives (with some overlap– so bear with me).
As a reader: I’m satisfied. Conflicts are resolved. Sadie is still alive, if in her eighties, while Jake is what– on paper, mid thirties, in reality, about 40? He gets to see his darling again. She is a strong, accomplished woman who has touched many lives. They can’t really be together, as she is several decades older than Jake now, but hey. They can share another dance.
As a writer: I deeply admire not going the happy-ending route, and bringing Jake’s journey to a more realistic close. Jake has been on a perilous adventure and it has come at a price. Also, there’s a neat little symmetry with the whole “the past harmonizes” gimmick and the fact that Jake and Sadie dance to “In the Mood” like they did in an alternate past, years and years ago (even if it isn’t a Lindy). There is also something hauntingly beautiful about having Sadie recognize Jake, although in this reality they have never met before: about her knowing him as someone she has encountered in her dreams. I love this both as a reader and writer.
As a reader: So, in the end…when you’re looking at things objectively…Jake lost five years of his life, met and lost his true love (or rather, she’s still around, but doesn’t remember their time together because it technically never happened, and she is some forty years his senior), did what he set out to do, but ended up having to undo EVERYTHING, which means he basically really did WASTE five years of his life. I almost think it’s too romantic to say that an elderly version of his former lover makes a satisfactory consolation prize.
As a writer: Whatever. I’m still impressed.