Main characters: Jake Epping/George Amberson
Time and place: 2011/1958-1963, US (a small part of the book takes place in Derry, Maine)
First sentence: “I have never been what you’d call a crying man.”
Verdict: Loved it :)
Meet Jake Epping, 35. An English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and recently divorced. He leads quite an ordinary, uneventful existence, until one day a phone call turns his life upside down.
“When you go down the steps, it’s always 11:58 A.M. on the morning of September ninth, 1958.”
Turns out time travel is in fact possible. Sure, it’s always in the same time and the same place, but it is quite a huge discovery nonetheless. It’s also a chance for Jake to put right things that once went wrong, starting with the day a demented father killed his wife and children, and ending with (why not) one of the biggest events in recent history, the JFK assassination.
However, the past does not easily accept to be changed. Each step away from the original timeline is a struggle — would Jake be able to win?
Oh, how I have waited for this book! Ever since I first read there was going to be a Stephen King book involving time travel and wanting to change history for the better I was totally hooked. And now that I have read it I can only say that it was every bit as good as I imagined it to be :)
Getting to see the life in 50s/60s-small-town-America through the eyes of a contemporary was quite a treat for me. I loved how, particularly at first, Jake kept comparing the old ways with his present-day ones, and usually it was the present that kept falling short. Life seems to have been a lot more peaceful half a century ago, complete with people that are (were) nicer and a lot more trusting. Some of the official IDs (the driving licence, if I remember correctly) didn’t even have photos!
One of my favorite scenes regarding past/present differences was when Jake went to a bank to make a deposit, and noticed how everything was done on paper. A thing that was only to be expected, since the PCs were still a long way off, and yet the mere idea struck me as novel in an it’s-so-obvious-why-didn’t-I-think-about-it-before kind of way. For some reason I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around a computerless bank (which only goes to show how used I got with having computers everywhere around me, since I cannot quite imagine a world without them).
Another notable difference between the then and now was that smoking seems to have been everyone’s favorite pastime back then. A thing that’s only natural, I guess, since no connection with cancer had yet been made, and all the papers were filled with ads portraying smoking as the coolest thing ever — and yet I, like Jake, found somewhat strange a world more often surrounded by blue smoke clouds than not, simply because it was so very different from the way things are now. I love books that make me think of things I have never thought of before, so this book was to me a winner from this point of view at the very least.
To be honest, Jake felt a bit Mary Sue-ish to me (or whatever the male counterpart of a Mary Sue is). He is supposed to be this ordinary teacher, but as the book unfolds it turns out there is nothing he cannot do, be it lindy hopping, killing people in cold blood, directing a successful play or writing what was quite likely to be a best-selling novel. His drive to do (what he considers) the right thing never falters, despite the fact that he knows the past will not allow to be changed without putting up a brutal fight. And, Mary Sue or not, I very much admired him for that. As I liked the way he always ended up teaching English, because this chance to help young minds expand was what he considered his vocation. I really do not have anything to reproach him, other than his being a tad too close to perfection :)
As a character, Lee Harvey Oswald was sort of a weaselly young man. There was no way in the world for the author to pull off making him sympathetic, and so he didn’t even try. The first time we ever meet Oswald is during an argument with his wife, Marina, whom he treats like dirt, and it all goes mostly downhill from there. And, of course, adding to that we have the fact that we only get to see him through Jake’s eyes, and Jake is not exactly an objective party (I am quite certain that Oswald would have been despicable enough even if he had the benefit of a not-so-subjective narrator, though). This however makes him feel more like a caricature (having some traits exaggerated while others are ignored) than a real human being — not that I am complaining in any way, the book is long enough as it is, plus the author didn’t have that much creative freedom in this case, as Oswald’s character has been documented over and over again. And yet, wouldn’t it have been even more interesting if the line drawn between good and bad had been at least a little blurry?
I should now say something about Sadie too. However, for most of the book I didn’t have that much interest in her. Sure, I loved to see the relationship between her and Jake develop (mostly because I liked him and so I wanted him to be happy), but other than that there was always something that felt to me a bit off about her, although try as I might I cannot quite put my finger on it. Perhaps she seemed to me overly-fragile and likely to break — I say that because somewhere in the last bunch of pages she starts acting sort of badass (she even threatens someone with a knife), and I actually liked her then, despite the fact that the said change did not seem all that plausible to me. Or who knows, perhaps I have just read her wrong, or did not pay her enough attention or something. Either way, we just did not click.
Jake however totally clicked with her :)
By now I have read quite a bunch of reviews, and mostly they all agree that the relationship between Jake and Sadie was one of the best things in the book. Ah, and it is indeed a nice relationship (particularly if we consider I enjoyed reading about it despite my less-than-lukewarm feelings for Sadie), but was I as impressed by it as some of the rest of the world? The answer is no, but this may well be my fault; after all, I started this book in order to read about time travel and affecting timelines and the likes, while a love story I could very well take or leave :)
I was very happy to discover that this is a very tame book, horror-wise, as there is almost no gore at all (at least by Mr. King’s standards), and there’s only a slight hint of evil lurking nearby — just enough of it to be deliciously creepy, no more. The vast majority of the plot revolves around Jake’s attempts to create a better future. At times this can turn out to be somewhat boring, as in order to take action Jake needs to stake out his ‘targets’ for a while, however for me there always was present an underlying sense of excitement: “will he be able to pull it off?” and “how will he be able to pull it off?”
What I liked most
The time travel! I am first and foremost a time travel buff, so how was I not to like it? :)
The history part of it! Seeing as I am also a history buff, I was bound to jump for joy seeing how I had an opportunity to learn more about a couple of people (JFK/LHO) that up until now I knew rather little about.
And then there’s of course the small details, such as I found it interesting how Al could afford to have the cheapest burgers around the area because he bought his meat from the past, at ’58 prices :) Although in his case it would have been a lot wiser if he had raised the prices a bit, methinks; as things were most people avoided Al’s establishment thinking that the meat in the burgers couldn’t possibly be actual beef given how cheap it was.
What I liked least
The time for nitpicking is upon us: at one time Jake is writing both a book and his memoirs, saying about the latter something like “these are the pages you are reading now”. But. But then he is forced to make a quick escape to the present day and he leaves the pages behind1 :) (and of course they get lost in the reset when he gets back in 1958)
Other than that, the one moment I found least enjoyable was the one when Jake sees a part of Sadie’s name (“DORIS DUN”), and it was the same as a part of the name of a woman whose husband has tried to kill her — so boom, all of a sudden Jake has this crazy idea that Sadie’s husband too will do the same thing. While I did get (and enjoyed) the parts regarding the past “harmonizing” with itself, this particular moment seemed to me to be pushing it a teensy tiny bit too far.
Thoughts on the ending
Unexpected and, as such, nothing short of brilliant :)
Recommend it to?
The Goodreads rating is 4.27, so if you have at least a passing interest in either Stephen King or time travel stories, I heartily encourage you to give it a try.
Written by the same author:
- I am actually hoping to be wrong about this one, it seems to me quite a big slip up if the author did indeed slip. [↩]