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.
Such is the fittingly weird-in-a-good-way start to Bowlaway, a new novel by Elizabeth McCracken (her first in nearly 20 years, after 2001's Niagara Falls All Over Again).
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.