At the turn of the 20th century, a small Massachusetts town is rocked by the arrival—seemingly out of thin air—of a woman, Bertha Truitt, found unconscious in a frost-covered cemetery with only a corset, a bowling ball, a candlepin and 15 pounds of gold.
Had any other outsider landed in the sleepy town of Salford, its residents might not have been so welcoming. Bertha, though, is magnetic, starting a family with the doctor who revived her in the cemetery and enacting plans to open a candlepin bowling alley (a variation of bowling played predominantly in New England that she claims to have invented).
As the alley—eventually renamed Bowlaway—comes together, it threatens to usurp Bertha as the book’s main character. It’s where three generations of Salford residents grow up, fall in love, fall out of love and eventually die—like Bertha does, in a freak accident. Her friends and family mourn and then move on with their own lives. McCracken does the same, shifting her focus to two subsequent generations of Bertha’s family, whose stories fill up the rest of the book.
In the traditional plot sense, there’s not a whole lot happening in Bowlaway. Sure, there are secrets and natural disasters and even a murder, but the novel’s strength lies in its subtler moments and McCracken’s knack for capturing the slog of day-to-day life.
For fans of Elizabeth Strout and Fredrik Backman, Bowlaway, much like Bertha Truitt, is just kooky and charming enough to work.