If you haven’t already heard, Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway is one of the Buzzy Books Of Spring, for obvious reasons: tt’s been seventeen years since her last novel, and the premise of this new book – a family saga about a bowling alley – is a perfect fit for McCracken’s offbeat but heartfelt type of storytelling. Now, I rarely go in for Buzzy Books of Any Season, because I am both contrary (“don’t tell me what to read!”) and often disappointed – but I am also a tremendous fan of her first novel, The Giant’s House. Which meant that, buzz or no buzz, I needed to take my chances and read Bowlaway.
I am very, very glad I did.
Bertha Truitt appears in a New England cemetery at the turn of the century under mysterious circumstances and promptly builds a candlepin bowling alley, marries a black doctor, builds an octagonal monstrosity of a house, and becomes a fixture in town. Men and women alike flock to the alley and to Bertha herself – including the abrupt, solitary alley manager, a grieving young mother, and an orphaned housekeeper.
(Candlepin bowling, if you’re wondering, is a particular type of bowling only found in New England. You get three throws, the ball doesn’t have holes, and the pins look more like a fancy French rolling pin than the kind we’re used to. It’s more unpredictable than regular bowling, too — which makes it the perfect fit for McCracken’s story, which almost never goes where you’d expect, but is thoroughly enjoyable nevertheless.)
Then Bertha dies, and the novel pivots we follow the lives (and deaths) of the people she’s touched as they scatter like pins. Bertha’s purported heir shows up to take over Truitt’s Alleys, and this whimsical story about a singular woman becomes a sprawling multi-generational family epic.
Bowlaway has a quirky feel to it, with the clever, playful language and almost-coincidences and plot twists I tend to associate with magical realism. There are maybe-ghosts and maybe-town monsters and possibly-hidden-treasures and definitely-weird deaths. But there’s no overt magic here, like you might find in an Alice Hoffman novel – it’s more the tone than anything concrete, and it’s charming.
Where the novel really shines, however, is in McCracken’s characters. Many of them seem larger than life when they first appear, seen through another character’s eyes. But when it’s their turn in the spotlight, they deepen into something profoundly more human and endearing. We see their oft-tragic backstories, their search for love and belonging, and how Bertha (and her bowling alley) altered the trajectory of their lives – a source of both strife and connection.
Bowlaway isn’t an escapist novel, exactly — but it’s definitely an entertaining and immersive one, with prose to savor and plenty of food for thought.