The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, Review: Heroic dogma

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is filled with characters that charm but international readers may find the anthemic Americana less beguiling. Read my full review.

The Lincoln Highway Book Synopsis

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles Book Review

Two brothers venture across 1950s America to New York in the absorbing new novel by the author of the bestselling A Gentleman in Moscow.

In June, 1954, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile work farm where he has just served fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter.

With his mother long gone, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett plans to pick up his eight-year-old brother Billy and head to California to start a new life.

But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car. They have a very different plan for Emmett’s future, one that will take the four of them on a fateful journey in the opposite direction – to New York City.

Bursting with life, charm, richly imagined settings and unforgettable characters, The Lincoln Highway is an extraordinary journey through 1950s America from the pen of a master storyteller.

(Penguin Books Australia, 2021)

Genre: Literature, Historical, Drama, Adventure

Disclosure: If you click a link in this post and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission.

Book Review

After raving over Amor Towles debut novel Rules of Civility, I was very much looking forward to reading his highly anticipated third novel The Lincoln Highway. It is featured in countless Best Books of 2021 lists, and the Amazon Book Review editors even named this their #1 book of the year.

Towles once again displays his skill and dare I say it, devotion to character development. There were multiple characters and descriptions that charmed me.

You’ve got to love that about Woolly. He’s always running about five minutes late, showing up on the wrong platform with the wrong luggage just as the conversation is pulling out of the station.

But, I think it is worth approaching this chunky 576 page novel with managed expectations – particularly so international readers who like me are less likely to be beguiled by this tale’s anthemic strains of Americana.

Now, I was always going to finish reading The Lincoln Highway because Towles hooks you early on setting off a domino-like series of events with menacing portent. But my expectation that this novel only spanning 10-days in the life of its characters would translate to a fast-paced reading experience was misguided.

The Lincoln Highway narrative is told from alternating character perspectives – a literary construct I typically really enjoy. But I found Towles’ decision to use third-person perspective for some characters and first-person for others perplexing to say the least. I suspect it was something to do with ‘reading about heroes’ and a desire to heighten narrative suspense. But this, the numerous side tales and at times laboured moral messaging broke my reading spell on many occasions.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

I would describe The Lincoln Highway‘s conclusion as thought-provoking and worthy of interrogation, rather than satisfying. I am a big believer in karma, but this brand of casual fatalism and eye-for-an-eye dogma was just a little hard for me to swallow.

In The Lincoln Highway Amor Towles once again delivers characters that charm. That is his enviable talent. But, whether readers are ‘swept away’ by their story, I think rests heavily on personal experience and philosophical outlook.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5 – Overall 3.75

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More The Lincoln Highway reviews

The Lincoln Highway is a joyride… delightful tour de force .. There’s so much to enjoy in this generous novel packed with fantastic characters’ – NPR.org

‘Towles’ third novel is even more entertaining than his much-acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow (2016)… A remarkable blend of sweetness and doom, Towles’ novel is packed with revelations about the American myth, the art of storytelling, and the unrelenting pull of history. An exhilarating ride through Americana.’ – Kirkus Starred Review

‘With its down-home style and ideas about the lone hero, The Lincoln Highway is pure Americana. Reading it in any other country is like taking a vacation in the Land of the Free: a long, easy, enjoyable if at times hokey ride on a highway filled with adventure.’ – The Guardian

About the Author, Amor Towles

Amor Towles was born and raised in the Boston area. He graduated from Yale University and received an MA in English from Stanford University. An investment professional for over twenty years, he now devotes himself full time to writing. Towles lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. Check out his website or connect with him on Twitter.

* My receipt of a review copy from the publisher did not impact the expression of my honest opinions above.