amor towles the lincoln highway review

Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway: a Review

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is set in the 1950s and it’s about three eighteen year old boys (plus a little brother) who are faced with the challenges of becoming adults in a world where they are considered outsiders. The three become friends while serving time in a correctional institution. In a way, they are all victims of their circumstances and of their own tempers, and to be honest, none deserve to actually be in a place like Salina.

While Emmett seems to be the main character of the story, his brother, Billy and his friends, Duchess and Woolly play an equally important role. It is Billy’s desire to find their long-lost mother that sets the actions of the novel in motion and gives the novel its title: they intend to travel from Nebraska to California via the Lincoln Highway.

There are several interesting themes and metaphors in Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway. One of them is the title itself. I might spoil the first few chapters for some of you, but despite the fact that the boys (Emmett and Billy at least) intend to travel to California, they instead set out on a journey to New York. All three of the boys (Emmett, Duchess and Woolly) are all at a crossroads of transitioning from teenager to adulthood, stuck in the middle, if you will. They start their journey in Morgen, Nebraska, which is also kind of in the middle of the Lincoln Highway. If you take Emmett’s character, his hopes and dreams, you can clearly see that the Lincoln Highway is sort of a metaphor of his aspirations of becoming a responsible adult. He wants to follow a well thought-out plan of becoming a contractor but is forced to travel “backwards”, both literally and figuratively. The journey to New York represents teenagerhood because he is forced to play Duchess’ childish games. Emmett literally goes against the tide but never gives up hope of becoming the man he wants to be.

“Well, that’s life in a nutshell, ain’t it. Lovin’ to go to one place and havin’ to go to another.”

On the other hand, the Lincoln Highway represents the unattainable dreams all three of these boys are chasing. But while Emmett has a chance of living out his dreams, the other two get completely tangled up in the harshness of the real world.

“Galileo, da Vinci, and Edison were not heroes of legend. These were men of flesh and blood who had the rare ability to witness natural phenomena without superstition or prejudice. They were men of industry who with patience and precision studied the inner workings of the world and, having done so, turned what knowledge they’d gained in solitude toward practical discoveries in the service of mankind.”

Another metaphor that seemed intriguing to me was Billy’s book, Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers. The book contains stories about fictional and real travellers. Billy’s only wish is to become one of those heroes in Professor Abernathe’s book and in a way, the novel itself is Billy’s recounting of the events taking place in it. So, in some ways, their journey east is just like all the other unlikely, larger-than-life stories included in Professor Abernathe’s compendium. On the other hand, the boys themselves (as well as the people they meet along the way) are similar to the heroes the professor writes about. They are travellers looking for the correct path, getting lost along the way, redefining and reinventing themselves with each failure.

Friendship, redemption and forgiveness also play a central role in Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway. Emmett and Duchess both struggle with becoming some sort of definition of American masculinity and their relationship clearly describes two very different aspects of this concept: considered calculation and instinctive spontaneity. In a way, both are qualities a man should possess but the stark opposition they present make it hard for them to coexist. I think this is why Emmett feels an instinctive pull towards Duchess while also being aware of the fact that he means trouble. This difference between the two is also reinforced by the different ways in which Towles conveys their voices in the novel. While Emmett’s narrative is in the third person (well thought-out, planned), Duchess speaks in the first person (more careless, free of constraints). 

My Rating

This novel left me with a lot of feelings. I found myself thinking about it days after I finished reading it. It really did make an impression. Also, I think it would translate really well into the big screen. Obviously, it deserves the best rating I can give. 🦊🦊🦊🦊🦊

“I have read a great deal. I have read thousands of books, many of them more than once. I have read histories and novels, scientific tracts and volumes of poetry. And from all these pages upon pages, one thing I have learned is that there is just enough variety in human experience for every single person in a city the size of New York to feel with assurance that their experience is unique. And this is a wonderful thing. Because to aspire, to fall in love, to stumble as we do and yet soldier on, at some level we must believe that what we are going through has never been experienced quite as we have experienced it…”

Discussion Points

Who is your favourite character and why?

What do you think about the names of the characters in this novel? Could they be somehow representative of their inner characteristics?

What surprised you the most about the events that take place in the novel?

If you enjoyed reading this review, make sure to browse some of my other Book Club posts as well!

If you would like to purchase this book, you can do so by clicking on one of the links below:

Amazon 🇬🇧


As always, thank you for reading! 💙

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