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First Look Club: Jean reviews The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

First Look Club: Jean reviews The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles


By Amor Towles

Publication date: October 5, 2021

Reviewed by Jean Arboleda

Calling all heroes, adventurers, and intrepid travelers! Ready to embark on an epic coast-to-coast road trip across America? Excited to journey through the quiet streets of Nebraska, to the lively landmarks of New York City, to the bright coasts of San Francisco? Your conductor for this trip will be none other than Amor Towles, the bestselling author of A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility, so buckle up for one exhilarating ride. 

The Lincoln Highway follows four young boys who set out to start their lives anew in the early ‘50s. Emmett Watson has just been released from Salina, the juvenile work farm where he was sentenced to serve for involuntary manslaughter. There’s nothing left for him in Nebraska—his father has just died, their farm has been foreclosed, and his mother has long since left—and his plan is to pick up his younger brother Billy and head west to sunny California, where Billy believes their mother is. However, he finds that two friends from the work farm have stowed away in the warden’s car—Duchess, the charming but mischievous son of a traveling thespian, and Woolly, the kindhearted youngest son of an upper-class New York family. Duchess and Woolly are planning an escapade to recover Woolly’s trust fund, and soon pull in a reluctant Emmett and Billy with one simple question: What would you do with fifty thousand dollars? But life is never as easy as going from Point A to B, and Emmett, Billy, Duchess, and Woolly soon find themselves in an adventure quite unlike what they had originally planned. 

“Making a fresh start isn’t just a matter of having a new address in a new town. It isn’t a matter of having a new job, or a new phone number, or even a new name. A fresh start requires the cleaning of the slate. And that means paying off all that you owe, and collecting all that you're due.”

Amor Towles’ rich and introspective prose shine once again in this propulsive tale that takes place over just ten days and is told from alternating points of view. 

As with the stories in Billy’s favorite book, “Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers,” we join these four Musketeers in medias res, as they embark on the great adventure that will define their fate. We then gradually get to  visit their pasts, showing the paths that led to where they are now. Literary references abound—from Odysseus to Othello, these classic stories shape, or bear a striking resemblance to, these characters’ lives.

Redemption, ambition, and compassion are woven throughout the novel, as each character (and some of the friends they meet along the way) struggles to atone for their sins, or free themselves from the past, in order to find a fresh start. Despite the allure of fifty thousand dollars, money is less of a driving force than the concept of moral accounting, a desire to balance the scales. As Duchess puts it, “through our misdeeds we put ourselves in another person’s debt, just as through their misdeeds they put themselves in ours.” I found this to be one of the most compelling themes of the novel, as each character contemplates what they owe to themselves, to the other people in their life, and to each other. Towles does an outstanding job in clearly showing each character as they are—virtues, vices, and all—without preaching or condescending. You will find yourself caring deeply for each one, and hooked from the first page to the last. 

“Wouldn’t it have been wonderful, thought Woolly, if everybody’s life was like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Then no one person’s life would ever be an inconvenience to anyone else’s. It would just fit snugly in its very own, specially designed spot, and in so doing, would enable the whole intricate picture to become complete.”

Beautifully written by a master of the craft, The Lincoln Highway deserves a spot on everyone’s shelf.

Jean will try anything once. She has, at different points in her life, worked in government, interviewed international celebrities, and been the social media manager for several brands. On any given day, she would rather be reading, preferably surrounded by puppies. You can find her on Twitter @jeanarboleda and Instagram @_alikelystory.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]

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