Everything below the jump is going to contain spoilers. If you haven't already read the book and you don't want to know how it ends, please don't click to read further. (Spoilers begin after the fourth paragraph, if you clicked to get to this post directly.)
What a ride! Stephen King knows his stuff. He knows how to string along a reader so that we keep coming back for more. He knows how to write a time travel tale (rather difficult to pull off, most writers acknowledge) in his own, fresh way, while being respectful to those who've come before. (He sprinkles a few suggested titles into the narrative.) He knows how to give us hints about what's going on and what'll happen, while still surprising us at the end. I know he has writing chops, but he still surprised me with what an enjoyable book this was.
Without the readalong, this would have been a different experience. There's something to be said for reading, discussing, and enjoying a book together. Others in the group noticed details I'd skipped over or deemed not important enough to pay attention to, and that awareness increased my enjoyment. Matt made me wonder, as I read, what 11/22/63 looks like to someone who hasn't read much Stephen King. Britt brought my focus on the Yellow Card Man, which pays off significantly before the book is done, and not in the way I thought. Grace talked about the style, how the book is essentially addressed to the reader. Rachelkiwi questioned the logic of going back in time to save things, especially when changes wreaked early on ended poorly. Jennifer's post brought to my attention how much King kept upping the stakes, which is both necessary and difficult in a first-person narrative.
Stopping to think about a book before plunging on also made me notice a lot of the literary aspects. There's foreshadowing galore, and this is a well-constructed tale. With one exception, the things I wondered in my write-up of Parts 1 - 3 were answered.
I never learned where the portal came from, what it was, or why it dumped a person into a warm afternoon on September 9, 1958. It was a force of nature (but nature from which version of reality?).
The Yellow Card Man, it turns out, is someone who's supposed to guard the portal, and deal with any repercussions caused by anyone slipping past. The card is supposed to be green, and shifting colors indicate slipping sanity. This makes me wonder if anyone Jake/George ran into who recognized what he was throughout the past was another agent of the forces trying to protect time. Are those who helped him planted there to sabotage time?
Time, it turns out, has many, many weapons at its disposal to try to keep Jake from succeeding in his mission. He's handed plenty of reasons to stay in the past and leave things be, but he breaks away from them. On the day he picks to kill Lee Harvey Oswald, Sadie, the woman he loves, is attacked by her ex-husband, badly maimed, and nearly killed. After he returns to Dallas to lay in wait for Oswald, Jake is beaten so badly he loses his spleen, and has to undergo physical therapy. It takes him a long time to reconstruct his memory. On the day of the assassination, Sadie shows up despite the danger, his car breaks down, then two buses in a row, then the car he steals, and there's too much traffic to get within several blocks of the Book Depository. When they get there, the building is locked, and he doesn't dare take the elevator. My heart was pounding, reading Jake bearing down on the watershed event, and I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish.
Jake deals with the challenges one at a time, but he had no reason to stick around. That's when the answers start coming, in the form of the Green Card Man (for whom the last part is named). He doesn't have all of the answers, but he is there to talk Jake into refraining from further tinkering. Then Jake walks into an unrecognizable present: a world nearly ripped apart by earthquakes, the political situation beyond dangerous, the streets of sleepy small-town Lisbon Falls too treacherous to travel at night. Time is a fragile thing, it turns out, and those obstacles were in Jake's way for a damn good reason. (He even hints that he knows this, deep down, by dreaming that it's not too late, which was when I started to get a sinking feeling about Jake's stubbornness to save JFK).
Harry Dunning is alive in this less-than-ideal present day, but he's wheelchair bound, and arguably no better off. Jake sees all of the repercussions of what he did, and comes to the perfectly obvious conclusion he has to go back again. But this time, there's the question of how much to change, if anything. Does he let a young Harry Dunning witness his family's slaughter and receive the blow that will leave him brain-damaged? Does he leave Sadie to her ex-husband's wrath, or does he warn those close to Sadie? Does he dare warn anyone of anything, or is he best off leaving no imprint in the past?
This question turns into the true turning point of the book. Not whether he saves JFK, not whether he sets out to do what he decided to, not to see what destiny placed a time portal in his path, but what he decides to do about it, knowing the repercussions.
I was worried the theme of this book might be something so trite as, "Things happen for a reason," but I should've trusted to Stephen King's writing prowess. Instead, it's not to go poking in things you don't understand, which is a consistent theme for him.
As for references to other Stephen King books, in addition to It and the Dark Tower books, Christine makes an appearance. Sadie's ex-husband has a Plymouth Fury that's red and white, just like the title car in Christine. Johnny Goodwin is cut from the same cloth as Roland D. LeBay, the spirit who haunts his old transport.
There's a more subtle reference to "The Mangler," a short story found in the collection Night Shift. Jake constantly refers to the machinations of time as a machine that'll chew you up. He's personally never met such a machine, but the protagonist of "The Mangler" has. King wrote that story in response to having worked in a laundry facility as a younger man, and it seems to have stuck with him.
All-in-all, I can see why so many critics recommended this book, and I'm glad to have a group of astute readers to share the experience with.
My non-spoiler review
My parts 1 - 3 write-up
Matt Burkhardt of The Write Aspirations on parts 4 - 6 (no spoilers)
Grace of Feeding My Book Addiction's post on parts 4 - 6 (contains some spoilers)
Jennifer at BookDen's post on parts 4 - 6 (spoilers)
Rachelkiwi at She Is Too Fond of Book's post on parts 4 - 6 (spoilers)
Britt at Self-style bibliophile on parts 4 - 6 (spoilers)
The original readalong post on Feeding My Book Addiction