The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

And then you go and spoil it all…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Emmett Watson has just been released from the juvenile work farm where he has spent eighteen months after accidentally killing another boy in a fight. While he was inside, Emmett’s father died and the bank has foreclosed on the mortgage on their Nebraskan farm, so now Emmett is left with only his car and $3,000 dollars his father has hidden for him away from the bank’s clutches, and his younger brother Billy to care for. Emmett was never keen on farming anyway, so he intends to take Billy to Texas and start a new life there. But Billy wants to go to California since he has found some postcards from their mother, suggesting that’s where she headed when she abandoned them long ago. And then two boys from the work farm show up, Duchess and Woolly, having hidden in the boot of the car that brought Emmett home. They have a different plan of where they want to go, and they want to persuade Emmett to come along. So the four boys set off on a journey, following the Lincoln Highway first east to New York, and then planning to drive from there west, all the way to the other coast…

I love Amor Towles’ writing. He has moments of beauty, moments of humour, occasional shafts of intriguing insight into history or literature or human nature, and he creates lovely characters. His characters rarely ring fully true, but they have that quality of the heroes and heroines of olden times, when we seemed able to accept people as wholly good in a way that feels rather out of place now in contemporary fiction. He gets away with this partly because of the quality of the writing, partly because he sets his novels in the past, and partly because he creates a kind of fairy tale atmosphere, where this reader at least can happily put her disbelief to one side for a while and simply enjoy the story.

Here, the three boys from the work farm are all good-hearted, kind and generous – the problems that led them there all arising as a result of useless, though not intentionally cruel, parenting. They all put each other above themselves, never behave inappropriately in front of eight-year-old Billy, and rarely do anything much that rises above the level of endearing naughtiness. The exception is Duchess, who is occasionally startlingly violent, but always for excellent, generous reasons. It’s all very Walton-esque – one can well imagine John-boy being just such a lad had he ever ended up in a work farm. Or perhaps like Alcott’s Little Men, where a little love is enough to wipe away the mostly deeply embedded trauma. Not believable, but reassuring to readers turning quiveringly away from real life in search of a bit of respite.

It’s a long and slow book – one to savour rather than to race through. Not much happens for most of it, just a series of minor incidents, most of them with a humorous edge though with an occasional moment of something a shade darker. The viewpoint jumps from boy to boy, sometimes first person, sometimes third, sometimes present tense, sometimes past, and along the way we gradually get to know each boy well, and learn about the history of their lives and what has brought them to this point. It took me a while to slow down to the book’s pace but once I had, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them all, even precociously annoying little Billy. I found I was looking forward to picking the book up each night to take me to a gentler, kinder world for a while…

***Despite my best efforts, what follows is mildly spoilerish, though of mood rather than incident, so if you intend to read the book soon, stop now! Suffice it to say, I disliked the way he ended it.***

Amor Towles

And then, as he has done before, Towles spoils it all with a completely jarring ending. Obviously I can’t go into detail, but I’ll just say that after all that goose-down soft relaxation, he metaphorically hit me over the head with a brick, and left me nursing my wounds. I still can’t get the bad taste out of my mouth – and bad taste pretty much describes those final few chapters. I don’t know what he was thinking. Was he playing games with the reader? Did it amuse him to calm us and soothe us and rock us gently and then set off a metaphorical bomb under us just when we least expected it? It certainly didn’t amuse me! Either write a sentimental piece of nostalgia for a non-existent time, Mr Towles, or write a hard-hitting novel – don’t swap genres in the last 5% of a book!

So, difficult to rate. I adored 95% of it and hated 5%, and that 5% ruined all that had come before. I’m going to give it four stars but that’s pretty arbitrary – I reckon I could justify any rating between one and five based on my conflicted and aggrieved feelings. Would I recommend it? Not sure – I’d like you to get as much enjoyment as I did out of the bulk of it, but I’d hate for you to end up feeling as I did when I turned the last pages…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link

61 thoughts on “The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

    • Not FictionFan and I can’t answer re page numbers as the Netgalley I read doesn’t have any. I also have a slightly different take on the ending, but I think if you read 95% of the book it would be impossible to put down at that point unless you’d been really bored by it.

      And, I notice you couldn’t resist reading past FF’s review past the spoiler warning, and I suspect you’d struggle to resist reading the ending on the basis of both that and just the number of things you would want to know.

      Liked by 2 people

    • As elkiedee has said, I don’t think so unfortunately. You’d want to know what happens to them all. It’s a slow story, but there is a plot of sorts and all the answers come at the end. But lots of people have loved it – it’s got really high ratings on GR, and looking at the reviews the ending doesn’t seem to have bothered most people. So if it takes your fancy don’t let me put you off. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve had a similar experience with each of his three books, that the ending has left me disappointed and a bit annoyed after enjoying the journey there, though with the other two it wasn’t as extreme as this. I don’t know why he does it – I could think of several ways he could have ended this one that would have worked better – sad or happy endings. But this ending just changes everything I felt about these boys I’d grown fond of… 😦

      Liked by 1 person

    • Neither do I – it spoils everything that came before. But lots of people don’t seem to have been so bothered by the ending in this one (though lots of people have been, too) so I guess it’s all subjective… 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Oh, no! I’ve had that happen, FictionFan! You’re going along enjoying a book, etc., and then all of a sudden, the author changes everything and that takes away from the book. That after-taste is really bitter, isn’t it? It’s a shame, too, because the story seems to be such a nicely structured story that takes you on a pleasant journey. Sorry to hear that happened.

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    • It’s so annoying! Apart from anything else it kinda reminds you that they’re all just characters on a page that the author can change at will. I “believed” in these characters and had grown fond of them, and then suddenly they behaved in ways they *shouldn’t* have in terms of who we’d been told they were, and I was left feeling… betrayed!

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  2. I really enjoyed the book – I liked his first book more than the second but this is my favourite of the three novels – I still have some Kindle short stories TBR – not a collection – stories published as individual items – one offered as a freebie then sold in Kindle format, one available for through Prime’s Kindle loan offerings I think – I found the ending rather shocking, and after such a long book, I did feel that there is a whole other story left – what about Emmet and his brother’s original plans? I can understand why you hated the ending but I felt that I kind of got it. Even with all the fairytale elements of the story, I wouldn’t have found “happily ever after” a really satisfactory ending, given all the issues and questions raised.

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    • I thought this was going to be my favourite too, right up until that ending, but now I’m wondering if I want to go on reading his books at all – all three of them have left me dissatisfied in different ways, much though I love his writing. Trying to avoid spoilers, I could have lived with the first shocking event, which was sad but felt in line with the characterisation. But the second, big shocker just felt wrong – I didn’t believe that these characters I had come to care about would have acted in that way, if you see what I mean. A sad ending or a happy one would have worked fine for me, but this one just didn’t feel consistent with the story…

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    • It’s hard to say – loads of people seem to have loved it and not been put off by the ending, so clearly my reaction is subjective to a degree. But I kinda wish I hadn’t read it…

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  3. 😣 😖 If an ending causes someone to hate what she just read, I tend to steer clear. I don’t like to be invested in a book only to have it take a turn for the worse. I’ll just stick with A Gentleman in Moscow and skip this. I wasn’t a fan of the premise, having read what you included in a previous post. So I know this book is not for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I actually thinks it’s unfair of a writer to end a book in a way that’s out of synch with what came before. I don’t mean the ending should be predictable, though sometimes a predictable end can be very satisfying (see P&P!), but it should be consistent with the tone of the book…

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  4. I’m not as fond of Towles as you are, so I still haven’t decided whether to read this book. I thought A Gentleman in Moscow was insultingly soft on the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, which was really brutal. So far, the only book he’s written that I liked at all was Rules of Civility, which I thought had a very fitting ending.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s his writing I love, but I’ve found each of his stories disappointing in one way or another. I totally agree about Gentleman, and I was also annoyed that he left it with a kind of nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary way of life, forgetting the dire poverty so many people were living in. Some things work as fairy tales, but the Russian Revolution isn’t one of them! I enjoyed Rules of Civility best too, although I seem to remember being a bit disgruntled by how it ended too – though I can’t remember now how it did end!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh dear, this sounds so strange. It’s hard to enjoy so much of a book and then feel betrayed by the ending. You’d think an editor would have intervened. Where are the editors? Oh yes, I remember, they’ve all been laid off or are so overworked because of downsizing and consolidation of publishing houses (while piling the additional workload on those who remain) that they don’t have time to do anything except act as project managers. And I won’t start about the one person left in the contracts department who’s responsible for getting contracts out and authors paid…..Publishers who are saying they’re having banner years are not letting that trickle down to their employees.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I sense you’re having issues with your publishers! 😉 Yes, I wondered too why an editor hadn’t said that the ending didn’t fit the tone of the book, but loads of people love the book and seem to have no issues with the way it ends, so what do I know? I guess it proves yet again that it’s always subjective – but it’s left me wondering if I really want to keep reading his books when I can’t trust him, if you see what I mean…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I was tempted by this until you mentioned the off-kilter ending, what a strange sounding decision. I still might try it though, as I loved the quote you shared the other week, and I’m hoping I’ll enjoy the rest of the book so much that the ending won’t bother me as much as it did you.

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    • There’s a good chance the ending won’t bother you the way it did me. It has a million five-star ratings on Goodreads and, while some of the reviewers were unhappy at how it ended, plenty seemed to feel it worked fine. So as usual it’s all subjective, and his writing is a pleasure to read. It’s left me wondering if I want to go on reading his books though, if I can’t feel I trust him, if you see what I mean…

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    • Rules of Civility is still my favourite, though I seem to remember feeling let down by the way it ended too – which I now can’t remember! 😂 But not like this – the ending of this one just didn’t fit the book! Gah!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. At first, I thought this one sounded good, but since you found the ending so jarring, I think I’ll pass for now. I’ve never read Towles and suspect I’d have to suspend a LOT of belief to get through 95 percent of this “Little House on the Prairie” stuff. Then, if the ending does a complete 180-degree turn, well, let’s just say I might be tempted to toss the book at the wall!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It took me a while to accept that kind of sweet tone and then having won me over, he totally destroyed the book for me at the end. Gah! It’s such a shame because his writing is such a pleasure to read, but somehow his stories always leave me either dissatisfied or, with this one, really annoyed!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I so agree with you about the ending, it’s a real shocker, but on the whole I’m really glad I read it and I did wonder if he might write a sequel featuring the brothers.

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    • I don’t even feel I’d want to spend more time with the brothers after the way this one ended – it changed how I feel about them totally. Such a pity because I was loving it so much up to that point…

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  9. I did not read your spoiler part, nor have I read any other comments since they might have contained spoilers, as well. I don’t plan to read this any time soon, but I know I will someday. I want to wait until I have the time to savor it and can hopefully concentrate better. (surely my lack of focus is not the new norm!)

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    • Ha, I’m sure you’ll get back to normal reading sooner or later – it took me months to get over my slumpiness but it did go away eventually! I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it – it has a million five stars on Goodreads, so clearly loads of people were quite happy with the way he ended it.

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  10. I already decided not to read this after seeing some lukewarm reviews, so I didn’t mind the slight spoiler. As far as I remember, I’ve never felt the ending ruined a novel completely, but I changed my mind last year about reading Small Pleasures after everyone (and I really mean everyone) said the ending made them want to throw the book across the room. Too bad about this one, when 95% was so good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s quite common in crime for an author to throw in a last twist that changes everything, and that only bothers me if it’s done badly. But it’s not normal for lit-fic, I feel, where the ending ought to stay consistent with what’s come before. However loads of people seem to have enjoyed it and not been bothered by the ending, so as always it’s clearly all subjective!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. The Towles book I’ve had on my TBR forever is A Gentleman in Moscow and I think I’ll stick with that one. The overall premise of The Lincoln Highway doesn’t especially appeal. I’m sorry that the ending was such a disappointment though, most annoying!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Because of the way this one ended I preferred A Gentleman in Moscow overall, though I had some issues with it too. Much though I enjoy his gorgeous writing, I’m beginning to feel we’re not soulmates when it comes to his storytelling. It’s all subjective, though – loads of people have loved this one without reservations over that ending!

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      • Dear FictionFan, I would like to make it a bit easier. We share humanity and me just like any one of you try to find her way in this world. My Classical belief gives me the end result for this search, that you even before me try to reach it after so much research. Nevertheless, I need to discover it through my life myself. Hope we grow a bit closer.

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        • Always happy to share book recommendations… or book warnings! Are there books you’ve particularly enjoyed? I or one of the other bloggers might be able to suggest similar authors. 😀

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  12. You’re absolutely right about the old-fashioned tone of characters in Towles’ books, though I haven’t read this one. I’m a bit out off by the size of it but I’m sure I’ll read it eventually.

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  13. I read down to the warning and this book doesn’t sound all that appealing to me, but since it is Amor Towles, I probably will end up reading it eventually if a copy presents itself. Always glad to have your opinion anyway.

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    • Most people don’t seem as bothered by what bothered me, so hopefully it will work for you when you get to it. Although it’s a slow read, the characters are enjoyable to spend time with.

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  14. I think you did a great job of not spoiling it actually, a jarring ending is so offensive to readers, myself included. I could see myself being really annoyed at the author for that, so I’m glad you warned me~!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I couldn’t see any way to explain why I had dropped a star without saying I hated the ending, but it’s always a risk saying too much about how a book finishes. This one really annoyed me though…

      Liked by 1 person

    • My favourite is still his first, Rules of Civility, but each has something going for it, even if they don’t always fully work for me. His writing is always great, though. Hope you enjoy it!

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