by Elizabeth McCracken

Hardcover, 2019






New York, NY : Ecco, 2019.


"A sweeping and enchanting new novel from the widely beloved, award-winning author Elizabeth McCracken about three generations of an unconventional New England family who own and operate a candlepin bowling alley"--

Media reviews

Bowlaway celebrates the oddest of oddballs and the freakiest of freak accidents with wit and heart. To read McCracken's inimitably clever sentences and follow her quirky narrative twists is to be constantly delighted.
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In the manner of John Irving and Salman Rushdie and Annie Proulx in their less persuasive work, McCracken in “Bowlaway” comes close to writing caricatures instead of characters. That this ambitious novel nearly works is a testament to her considerable gifts as a novelist, her instinctive access to the most intricate threads of human thought and feeling.
There’s a wickedness to McCracken’s technique, the way she lures us in with her witty voice and oddball characters but then kicks the wind out of us. She never misses the infamous 7-10 split, managing to hit Annie Proulx and Anne Tyler with the same ball. “Sorrow doesn’t shape your life,” the narrator says. “It knocks the shape out. It severs, it unstuffs, it dissolves. It explodes.” That’s a fair description of what happens to these quirky folks. As the decades pass, “Bowlaway” follows the unlikely trajectories of lives struck hard by joy and grief.

User reviews

LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This was a book that the critics liked. McCracken had 2 previous books that had been nominated for the National Book Award. With this background, I decided to read this. McCracken is funny and writes great creative prose. Her characters are quirky and there is quite a bit of John Irving in her writing. However, there was a bit too much whimsy and not enough plot. She had great characters but they would come and go so it was hard to find a constant thread throughout the book. The writing is great and I will read another book by her.… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
“Our subject is love because our subject is bowling. Candlepin bowling. This is New England, and even the violence is cunning subtle. It still could kill you.”

“He was born in a bowling alley, and he planned to die in one.”

“...grief looks like nothing from the outside, it looks like surrender, but in fact it is the most terrible struggle. It is friction. It is a spiritual grinding, and who's to say it cannot produce a spark and heat that, given fuel could burn a good man to the ground.”

Bertha Truitt, is a stranger to the town of Salford, Massachusetts. She is found unconscious in a cemetery, with no idea, where she came from. She becomes an unforgettable force in this small New England town, as she starts the area's first bowling alley. She is smart, scrappy and far ahead of her time. She is the foundation of this novel, which begins around the turn of the century and follows this family and the other bowling alley participants, as they move through the following decades.

McCracken's writing is stellar throughout and she has populated her novel with many memorable characters, that you will have a hard time shaking off. Her storytelling style may not appeal to all readers but for those that relish this approach, will have spend a fine time in Salford.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is a rather strange story of several generations of characters who are connected by a candlepin bowling alley. In the 1910s, a woman suddenly materializes in a graveyard with a big bag of money and a set of bowling pins. She builds a bowling alley and a house, and marries a local doctor. The bowling alley becomes the center of the town's social life. The novel focuses on a few characters whose lives are tied to the bowling alley.

The novel is strange and rambling, but McCracken's writing is beautiful. The book is full of delightful turns of phrase, vivid characters, and quirky situations. It's worth reading for the writing alone, which is good because the story itself rambles and doesn't seem to have much purpose.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
He was done with lots of things, he told her. Restaurants, candy, newspapers, parties, cars, airplanes, living in houses. He slept in hotels and traveled by train.

What he needed was to fall in love with another woman, but she saw he was too vain. Ordinary happiness would be a dent in his armor. Happiness was everywhere, like dropped coins. You might feel lucky to pick it up and put it in your pocket, but what could it really buy you?

To be haunted? That set you apart.

This is an odd book, full of whimsey and colorful characters. Beginning with the discovery of Bertha Truitt, lying in the cemetery who, upon being revived, makes a new life for herself in the small Massachusetts town she landed upon, opening a candlepin bowling alley, building an octagonal house and marrying the doctor who tended her. That bowling alley becomes a refuge for outcasts and a place where women can be together.

Nobody believed that this so-called Nahum Truitt was a child of Bertha's. The height of him, the denunciations, the way he talked. You could die of boredom. You longed to.

The great strength of this novel is McCracken's writing. By the time I'd finished it, there were dozens of post-it notes sticking out from between the pages, marking out remarkable descriptions and gorgeous sentences. But the beautiful writing did not hide that there were too many characters. Every time I began to understand a character and to fall into their story, they were gone, often forever, lost in the great flood of quirky characters and weird situations. There was never anything or anyone to hold onto. There's no question that the writing is extraordinarily good, but it turns out that even that is no substitution for plot and character development.

He had inherited his predecessor's office as it was, with the books and the ottoman, the manual typewriter that reminded him of a skeleton in a natural history museum--a small dinosaur, one so unfortunately shaped it existed mostly as food for larger dinosaurs. An aquatic animal, probably, with an alphabetic spine.… (more)
LibraryThing member andsoitgoes
I found this book only somewhat enjoyable. Lots of threads and sometimes they ended or converged with another line but sometimes that just were hanging out there. Interesting characters but most were never fully developed enough for me.
LibraryThing member TexasBookLover
“They found a body in the Salford Cemetery, but aboveground and alive.” Thus is the hook set. Bertha Truitt appears to have dropped from the sky—there are no footprints in the frosty ground around her—with nothing but the clothes on her back and a Gladstone bag with an odd inventory: “one abandoned corset, one small bowling ball, one slender candlepin, and, under a false bottom, fifteen pounds of gold.” This is how one properly sets up a mystery in two paragraphs.

Bertha is transported to a hospital where “it could not be determined whether she had amnesia or a privacy so pigheaded it might yet prove fatal.” Each time she’s asked where she came from, she replies, “I’m here now.” Bertha decides to remain in Salford, marrying a local doctor, building a bowling alley, and generally upending convention. Then her untimely death sets in motion a series of unlikely appearances and dubious claims, her influence continuing to reverberate through the years.

Bowlaway: A Novel, the sixth book from Austin’s Elizabeth McCracken, is literary historical fiction beginning early in the twentieth century and spanning the next eight decades, during which we follow the fates and fortunes of the eccentric characters whose lives are affected, for good and for ill, by the appearance—and recurring reappearances, usually in memory, occasionally in effigy—of Bertha Truitt and candlepin bowling.

Related by an omniscient, no-nonsense narrator, with an assist from a sly Greek chorus addressing the reader like an aside delivered to the camera (“the January sunlight cut through the eight windows of the cupola—no, let’s be honest, only four, that’s as much as is mathematically possible”), Bowlaway showcases McCracken’s trademark sharp but indulgent wit, a style as distinctive as Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar.

The pace is quick and even, the sociology and history of bowling alley development unexpectedly interesting. Narrative flow is interrupted in a couple of places, one of which is a meandering episode involving the making of an effigy of Bertha, the other about a ghost hunter, whose purpose in the story is unclear. Happily, well placed plot twists persist to an oddly satisfying end, allowing a little of the original mystery to linger.

Chuckle-aloud dialogue abounds—“Men fail to speak their minds when women are around, for fear of contradiction. That woman there looks especial contradictory.”—as do marvelous juxtapositions—“Bodily [Bertha] was a matron, jowly, bosomy, bottomy, odd. At heart she was a gamine.”

McCracken’s facility with the delicate yet robust detail that gets at the nature of a thing so that you pause with recognition is a joy. This is true in instances small, such as Bertha speaking in a “papercut tone” and “accordion cats that got longer when you picked it up by the middle;” and instances revelatory, as when McCracken writes of how “…people, women especially, are leery of mothers of dead children, or too gentle around them. The bereaved mother is a combustible gas, [another’s] baby is a match…” McCracken’s personal experience of losing a child rings through her prose, producing an acknowledging, appreciative flinch in this reader.

I was immediately immersed and charmed by Bowlaway, as I was by McCracken’s The Giant’s House many years ago. I am reminded of the cleverness of Much Ado About Nothing, the slapstick of Lucille Ball, and the domestic quirks of Anne Tyler’s Baltimore, all in the service of exploring absence, the value judgments we make based on appearance, the many varieties of love, the peculiarly American knack for reinventing ourselves, our selfish ability to justify our desires, and also our generosity in deciding to be for others what they need.

This is not an easy combination to pull off, but McCracken accomplishes it admirably and beautifully, with aplomb.

Originally published in Lone Star Literary Life.
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LibraryThing member bogopea
Read about a third. Too strange for me.
LibraryThing member bostonbibliophile
I just love the heck out of this book.
LibraryThing member Eoin
Glorious, richly rendered sentences building out the mythos of a small, strange candle pin bowling family over generations. McCracken continues her unbroken string of full-bore delight (even within absolute grief). There is a great, generous luxury of descriptions so unnecessarily beautiful. For a very basic example: “A policeman, a middle-aged anvil-headed man, with gray hair that shone just a little, like hammered aluminum.” Not an important character or characteristic, just a beautiful set of words for the joy of words. Worth it for the carving scenes alone.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cariola
Let me start by saying that I might have enjoyed this one more in print than on audio. it wasn't the reader's fault, it was just that this story starts to get very complex, and I was having a difficult time keeping the many characters and their relationships sorted out. Now that I'm retired and no longer listening on my work commute, I find that I am just not enjoying audio books as much. I would rather read at my own pace and hear the characters' voices in my own mind. My annual "reading" has been slowing down as I've moved more and more to print, but I'm enjoying it much more. My days as an Audible member may be limited.

Bowlaway is a saga--more the saga of a community than, as usual, a family, although it follows one trhough three generations. It begins around 1900 when a woman, Bertha Truitt, is found unconscious in the cemetery of a small Massachusetts town. On her person is a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold. Bertha decides to marry the African-American doctor who revives her--the first, perhaps, of the actions that shock her new neighbors. A bit of an entrepreneur, she opens a candlepin bowling alley and--even more shocking--allows women to bowl alongside the men. Despite her age, Bertha gives birth to a daughter, Mina, who suddenly finds herself packed off to the home of an uncle she has never met when her mother dies in a freak (and freakish) accident and her father, alcoholic and despairing, disappears (apparently a victim of spontaneous combustion). She leaves behind Maggie, an orphan girl who was hired to take care of Mina and who spends the rest of her life grieving their separation.

This is where the story started to get away from me. Bertha had promised to leave the bowling alley to Joe Wear, a retiring and rather slow young man who discovered her in the cemetery and who has been a loyal employee. But a man appears who claims to be her son from an earlier life. He takes over the successful bowling alley, kicks out the women, and generally upsets the town.

Bowlaway is loaded with many--perhaps too many--quirky characters, and each of them has a past full of mysteries, myths, and secrets that are gradually unfolded. Many reviewers have loved the novel's weirdness, but I just felt annoyed and confused by it. I've enjoyed earlier work by the author and might be willing to give this one another try in print--but not for a while.
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LibraryThing member ErickaS
Spoon River Anthology meets Cold Comfort Farm in this quirky story of a family-owned candlepin bowling alley that spans generations. There is a whisper of magical realism with a hefty dose of down-to-earth wisdom.

At the turn of the 20th century, Bertha Truitt, described as matronly and jowly, wearing a split skirt, is found lying face down in the local cemetery. She sits up and explains that she's the inventor of candlepin bowling. The townspeople are perplexed and mesmerized by Bertha Truitt and are delighted with her candlepin bowling alley, where they can bowl away their problems. Even women are encouraged to go, and it becomes a place of camaraderie.

Bowlaway follows Bertha Truitt and her husband, Dr. Sprague, and all their descendants in this small town in Massachusetts. Every character under the spell of Truitt's Alley has their own demons, their own agendas, their own desires. As the years pass, the bowling alley must change with the times as well as the aims of those who run it and those whose souls are captivated by the candlepins. Bowlaway has many stories of love and loss, and is handled with tenderness.

McCracken's writing is sharp and full of joie de vivre. I had to get out my tape flags to mark pages several times because her wordsmithing was so intelligent. It's getting a special place on my shelf because I know I'll smile every time I see it.

Many thanks to HarperCollins for an advance copy in exchange for my review. It was a privilege to read.
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LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
Not since “The Big Lebowski” has bowling been such a delightful background to a wacky, totally unconventional story with endless surprises. I am speaking of Elizabeth McCracken's 2019 novel “Bowlaway.”

The novel covers decades, during which characters scatter like bowling pins. Some die in outrageous ways. One in a flood of molasses. Another from spontaneous combustion. Some disappear and come back. Others just disappear. Nobody hangs around long enough to become the main character, leaving that role, by default, to the bowling alley in Salford, Mass.

Bertha Truitt, whom McCracken describes as "a matron, jowly, bosomy, bottomy, odd," shows up prostrate one night in the Salford cemetery, never explaining where she came from or how she got there. A young man named Joe Wear comes to her aid, as does a black doctor named Leviticus Sprague. For Bertha and Dr. Sprague, it is love at first sight. Or as the author describes Bertha's feelings, "She felt a plunk in the pond of her heart." They marry, have a daughter, Minna, and build a large house as odd as Bertha. And she builds a bowling alley.

Most of the story occurs in, around or at least about that bowling alley. Again to quote McCracken, "Our subject is love because our subject is bowling." The novel may not amount to a perfect game, yet still it offers as much fun as any game in any alley.
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LibraryThing member jphamilton
My grand time reading Bowlaway is over, but what a curious pleasure it was to read. It was a multi-generational story starting with a woman found lying in a cemetery with fifteen pounds of gold. The story travels around and through the members (near and distant) of her family, and those who worked in the heart of it all—the bowling alley. McCracken writes so well about these misfits. She gets the reader so attached to Bertha Truitt, that our author has to remove her from the novel with something massively unusual, a flood of molasses from a huge tank on the rooftop of the local distillery. That wall of sweetness buried cars, leveled buildings, and killed more than twenty people. In the search for Bertha, the first sign was her distinctive hat glued to a wall.

[The Great Boston Molasses Flood occurred on January 15, 1919, and I’ve always found it purely fascinating. They say it smelled like molasses in the North End for decades from those two million gallons of rampaging sweetness.]

If I actually wrote real reviews, there would be much more to this. But, personally, this is all it would take to spark my interest.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
McCracken is a wordsmith! Bowlaway is hilarious. The numerous characters got a bit confusing by the end, but still very enjoyable read.
LibraryThing member sberson
could not get through the book
LibraryThing member Dreesie
This book is certainly quirky. It starts as twee but, in the end, is largely kind of sad. Kind of. Really, this novel is about people reinventing themselves, as most of the characters do over their lifetimes. But, for me, it was just too quirky, as though the author was trying way too hard to make the characters unusual and interesting. Which just made them all seem larger than life, but somehow the book does not feel like a tall tale-larger-than-life in the way of Paul Bunyan or In the Distance. Perhaps because the author managed to root it around the Great Molasses Flood in 1919? Which I appreciated her including and citing a work on it, though it appears many readers thought it made the book too twee, but horrifying reality is not twee. To me, anyway.

You have:
random woman who appears>business owner and respected community member
orphan>servant girl>wife>mother>bowling alley owner>mother-in-law and friend
goofy pinsetter>husband and father
pinsetter>alley manager>alley owner>art model>moneyed old man

And more.

*The cover art does NOT match the house described in the story, nor is there a seagull in the story (another bird that is not a gull, yes). This is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. Editorial and marketing were not talking to each other, and whomever did the cover art did not read the manuscript. Or they bought unrelated art on the "good enough" principal. I wonder what the author thinks?
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LibraryThing member banjo123
A quirky book, full of quirky characters. It all revolves around Bertha Truitt, who appears mysteriously in Salford Massachusetts to open a Candlepin Bowling Center. I had never heard of candlepin bowling, but apparently it's a thing in New England, with smaller, narrower pins and a smaller ball than regular bowling. The book revolves around the bowling centeer, and various characters with connections there, and covers several decades and a number of social issues. I enjoyed the book, would recommend it to fans of Anne Tyler or maybe John Irving.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookchickdi
Elizabeth McCracken’s “Bowlaway” begins at the turn of the 20th century in small New England town of Salford, Massachusetts. A woman named Bertha Truitt is found unconscious in the town cemetery with a bowling ball, a candlepin and some gold bars on her person.

The entire town is curious as to where Bertha came from, but she either doesn’t know or won’t tell. She marries an African-American doctor, Leviticus Sprague, and opens a candlepin bowling alley in the town. (Apparently, this was a very New England activity.)

She hires two men, Joe and Jeptha, who are considered outcasts in the town. They are fiercely loyal to Bertha, and even when Bertha encourages the town’s women to bowl at the alley, people come to accept this unusual woman and her ways.

Bertha and Leviticus have a baby girl whom they dote on. When Bertha dies in a bizarre accident, Leviticus falls apart and sends the young child away to live with his family. Soon, a man named Nahum shows up claiming to be Bertha’s son from a previous marriage and wants to claim the bowling alley as his inheritance.

This intense story weaves its way through the years. We follow the large cast of characters throughout their lives, all revolving around the bowling alley. McCracken writes the novel with some magical elements within it, and it is a unique story, but she is such an amazing storyteller the reader becomes captivated by it.

Her characters and their journeys are fascinating and heartbreaking. We see how the past influences the present, and how secrets and choices can have such lasting consequences. McCracken’s writing is just stunning and lovely, and this book has received much critical praise.

“Bowlaway” is not for everyone, but if you are looking for a big, sprawling story set in a small bowling alley with characters who are unforgettable, definitely give it a try. McCracken’s previous book, “The Giant’s House,” also featured characters that are outside the societal norms, and is just as wonderful.
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