The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles

Like many avid readers I know, I read and enjoyed Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow. I’ve heard people say that, for them, The Lincoln Highway doesn’t live up to that earlier book, but my experience was completely different. While A Gentleman took me awhile to get into, I was hooked from the first page of The Lincoln Highway, couldn’t put it down, and read it in a little over one day. For me this novel was a completely immersive, engaging, sometimes heart-breaking experience, and although it’s almost certainly going to be the last novel I read in 2021, I think it will have a place on my Best Books of the Year list.

The story begins in Nebraska in 1954, where young Emmett Watson has just been released from a juvenile detention work camp to deal with his father’s death, the foreclosure on their farm, and the care of his nine-year-old brother Billy. Unknown to Emmett, two of his fellow inmates, the enterprising young con man Duchess and the dreamy Woolly, have stowed away and escaped along with him. While Emmett and Billy have a plan to drive west along the Lincoln Highway to California to start a new life, Duchess and Woolly (well, mostly Duchess) have a different plan that involve the same car and the same highway, but a completely different direction. Meanwhile, the girl next door, Sally, who has been helping to care for Billy while Emmett was incarcerated, has plans of her own that may or may not involve Emmett.

This story starts out like it’s going to be a road trip adventure, and it partly is, but once everyone gets to New York City (which, you’ll probably notice, is on the other side of the country from California), the action stays there for the rest of the book. Still, the novel has the feel of a quest or an adventure story, a motif underlined by Billy’s fascination with a book he carries that tells the tales of great adventurers from history and mythology. It’s told in multiple points of view, every character with a completely unique and distinctive voice. I fell in love with each and every character, even knowing that in doing so I’d get my heart at least a little bit broken by the end of the story, because you can tell going in this is not the kind of adventure where everyone will make it out unscathed. I loved, loved, loved this book and recommend it very highly.

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