The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is a big work of fiction about the complicated journey of adulthood.
Towles’ previous book A Gentleman in Moscow published in 2016—I loved that novel and thought it was such a warmhearted tale. It spent two years on the New York Times bestsellers list and wow, what a hard accomplishment to follow. As a result, The Lincoln Highway was met with much anticipation.
I’ve actually owned The Lincoln Highway for months but the size is daunting (588 pages). I was also unsure of the story—18-year-old men on a road trip throughout the U.S. Still, I’ve seen so much praise but also plenty of negative reviews too so I was quite curious to read the story for myself.
And whew, I have so many thoughts. I felt everything from intrigue to boredom at times to absolute shock. This story is not what I expected in the slightest, which made for both an enlightening reading experience but also a bit of a confusing one as well. I go back and forth about what I think overall so here’s my attempt to digest it for you.
If you’ve read the book and would like to talk all things spoilers—head over to my discussion about the ending here.
What’s the Story About
First, I do think calling this novel The Lincoln Highway is a bit misleading. I thought it was going to be a road trip/buddy story that took the reader on the actual Lincoln Highway where I assumed we would visit plenty of small towns on the journey, meet interesting and quirky people and get to the final destination in a big, grand finale kind of way.
That’s not what happens. It is a journey, but more about boys becoming men and trying to find their place in a post-world society in 1954. The Lincoln Highway does make an appearance but two of our main characters don’t even get to really travel on it. Catchy title but not exactly accurate to the story.
We meet eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson as he arrives home to Nebraska from a juvenile work farm where he has just served fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter. His father has passed away and his mother left the family and with the family farm recently foreclosed by the bank, Emmett decides that he needs to take his eight-year-old brother Billy to another state where they can begin a new life.
However, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car who drove him home. In a turn of events, they all began a fateful journey to New York.
We read the story from the third-hand perspectives of Emmett; his brother Billy; Woolly, one of the friends who escaped the work farm and several other characters. But we read the first-person perspectives of Duchess, the other friend who escaped the work farm and Sally, one of Emmett’s friends from Nebraska. It’s interesting that the author Amor Towles decided to shift perceptive like that. I have a theory of why he did that but it’s a bit of a spoiler so I will save it for my let’s talk about the ending article.
It did help having so many characters lend their true perspectives, especially as actions are sometimes different from their thoughts. There’s also some unreliable narration going on as well.
Although, I will say, Emmett is clearly our protagonist where Duchess is something else… to be honest, I wasn’t a fan of Duchess the moment he arrived and I didn’t love reading his perspective. I did not find him charming or misunderstood but more of a nuisance and with him having such a big role, that is one reason I did not love this novel.
That said, I do think the novel could have been trimmed—almost 600 pages is quite long. And there were areas I felt completed dragged and I started to lose interest. I’m not sure why they thought the longer the better as I think a more tighter story would have been stronger.
Much of the novel features Amor Towles in his signature style—warmhearted, big and epic storytelling.
However, the last 60 or so pages really came out of left field for me. When I finished it, my husband asked how it was and I said, “I’m unsure.” Again, it’s a long novel but bizarrely, it almost changes in tone and genre, especially toward the end.
As I write this, it’s been 24 hours since I’ve finished it and I’ve thought about it quite often since then. The more I think about it, I see where there are hints of something a bit more sinister lurking from several of the characters. I do see where the author laid the ground work for what was to happen but I feel the sudden shift was still jarring.
So what are my thoughts overall? I think the book is beautifully-written—Amor Towles really can write a truly masterful novel. But I do feel that the story missed the mark in several areas and I felt it dragged too. I’m still unsure about the tone shift because while shocking, it did not give a satisfying ending. I think this needed either an epilogue or promise of a sequel.
So all in all, I did not love the novel but I didn’t actively dislike it either. Disappointed in some areas but I did enjoy other aspects.
But again, that ending will get people talking so this novel is ideal for book clubs in many ways. For book clubs, check out my discussion questions here. And if you want to talk about the ending specifically, visit my post here.