... wildly entertaining ... To read McCracken's inimitably clever sentences and follow her quirky narrative twists is to be constantly delighted ... There is so much life in McCracken's prose ... Even amidst much woe... it's a joy to unravel the mysteries of these eccentric lives ... Bowlaway, too, gives you something to think about besides your regrets. Under the guise of a playful portrait of three generations' involvement with a nascent sport in small-town New England, McCracken's novel encompasses issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in 20th century America. Add to that the many unusual forms love takes — and death, too — and you've got a novel that scores big.
...nothing is ordinary in this story ... this is really a novel of characters, not mysteries, and Bertha is a whirlwind of personality capable of disrupting the staid patterns of Salford and drawing people into her orbit ... Indeed, the tone of Bowlaway wobbles like a knocked pin that might fall toward comedy or tragedy. 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 ... Several of these episodes also serve as a reminder of what a masterful short story writer McCracken is ... Such is the endlessly surprising course of genealogy in this novel with compassion to spare.
Like a pinbody, Elizabeth McCracken steadies her constellation of characters, and readers watch as fate rolls their way, knocking them sideways, sending them flying into the gutters or skimming past them, missing them altogether ... Always, though, shining through the carefully, beautifully painted grays, is the clarity of McCracken’s humor, bright and invigorating, like flickers of sunlight. Humor illuminates her work, revealing things clearly that we might have overlooked ... McCracken refuses to distinguish between the absurdity of comedy and the absurdity of tragedy ... Bowlaway... is jumpier, twitchier [than McCracken's previous novels], a big book that veers in and out of the lives of its idiosyncratic characters, creating what McCracken calls a 'genealogy,' occasionally verging, in its bric-a-brac of historical oddball detail, on the precious. But McCracken’s ironic perspective, her humor and her deeply humane imagination never desert her ... In Bowlaway, death and love and dreams live together, squabbling, soothing, holding hands, full of resentment, affection and confusion, like members of a large, spirited, extended family.
Elizabeth McCracken’s first novel in 18 years, Bowlaway, is that most improbable of literary phenomena: a buoyant, joyful, rollicking yarn of sadness and loss ... McCracken’s gloriously vibrant and boisterously surprising narrative voice is one of the great triumphs of Bowlaway. Over and over, similes and metaphors pop up to form odd and original, yet precise and perfect shapes ... These are linguistic gems, little flashes of preciousness lighting up the text. And they give the book a slightly maniacal momentum, as though anything could be reconfigured into material for a funny comparison. Here the style is in keeping with its increasingly runaway plot ... With all of this skill and charm, however, Bowlaway somehow doesn’t move profoundly in the way McCracken’s earlier work does ... But if Bowlaway is never thoroughly engrossing or wrenchingly emotional, it is a tour de force of magnificent sentences, arrestingly strange images, and penetrative observations. Swerving madly in all directions, with a sparkly surface trying to light up its darkness, Bowlaway is like a train off the tracks: breathtaking as a flash-bulb, breaking new ground, but not reaching any destination.
Bowlaway is a large and caterwauling sort of opera buffa, packed with outsize characters—some with recherché talents—and wild, often dreamlike events. If this novel were a bar, it would be the kind of joint where the Christmas lights are left on all year long ... More than one woman in this novel has lost a child. The writing on this topic makes for close to unbearable reading ... This is the sort of novel in which nearly every character has an offbeat name (Leviticus Sprague, Cracker Graham, LuEtta Mood) and can seem more like a collection of quirks than a human being ... 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 ... The plot has many resonances but never fully sets its hooks in us ... This novel’s cast grows epic, but McCracken is always most impressive when she works small, when she is describing movie kisses or corsets or simply loneliness and longing.
... a doggedly quirky family saga ... McCracken is a firecracker stylist and every sentence, every image, is crafted for physical impact ... However, all the jaunty eccentricity and whimsy can feel tiresome, and in fact the quieter, more ordinary moments are generally more powerful ... Bowlaway though, is not supposed to be a quiet book. It is exuberant, a bit bonkers and raw and unflinching. It will find a great many fans — and no doubt some awards, too. If you enjoy quirks and eccentricities, cranks and loons, you’ll probably love it.
Elizabeth McCracken holds a funhouse mirror up to the Great American Novel. Whimsy and weirdness spark at Bowlaway’s edges ... As Bowlaway moves through tremendous social change, McCracken develops her characters with remarkable depth. Her sense of detail is precise but comprehensive ... This is McCracken’s masterpiece, a story of reinvention: that most American of themes, the promise that’s guided a country through depressions, wars, tragedies, betrayals. The author has reframed the family saga for the misfit: that truest American character ... It is rousing.
Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway is a perfect novel. It takes classic narrative techniques and turns them into Greek drama. It is the very best kind of old-fashioned story molded into a modern chronicle ... Bowlaway is a totally immersive experience. It has everything — scalpel-edged prose, fully delineated characters, vividly described regional settings, a satisfying storyline, and an unforgettable powerhouse ending. It is unstoppable entertainment. Though it’s early in the reviewing year, this is likely the best novel of 2019. It is Elizabeth McCracken’s masterpiece. Bowlaway will blow readers away. Blammo.
At times the language can grow strained ... By and large, however we’re invited to relinquish the stern exigencies of realism and to go along for the ride. To insist on plausibility is to miss most of the fun. There’s a lilting music to this writer’s sentences, a love of language throughout ... The reader won’t be [disappointed]. There’s neatness to the plot’s loose ends and a wholly satisfying if unexpected conclusion.
... whimsical, enchanting ... the sort of novel with which you fall in love ... you turn the pages wondering how long McCracken can sustain what seems like free-floating oddness. But every page seems to provide the kind of writing that makes a reader stop cold, savoring the moment ... The language is often deliciously playful ... It’s a novel that takes your hand and hurries you into an inviting, curious world, leaving you happily bereft at its end.
...superb ... Let’s be honest, reader. Bowling away trouble is not possible. Trouble is the direct result of existence. But this truth does not stop the memorable characters in Bowlaway from flinging themselves toward heartache, despair, danger and love like so many balls barreling down the alley ... Like all of McCracken’s work, Bowlaway is sharp and funny and tragic. Following 100 years of change in an American town, it’s a story of loss and escape, inheritance and acceptance, love and betrayal and joy, women who dare to bowl and men who would stop them, killer molasses and possible spontaneous human combustion.
So much excellent writing about and so many wonderful claims for bowling appear in the book that one would not be surprised if its publication produces a spike in alley revenues ... Reading Elizabeth McCracken — the gorgeously-put-together sentences parading the pages like models on a Paris runway; the crazy, original insights; the definitive, wholly fictional pronouncements — is like going on an automotive safari ... the novel is a shaggy dog story within a shaggy dog story within a shaggy dog story. I never felt all that invested in the plot, but I could not stop reading, either, just to see what the heck she would think of next ... So back to the story. I don't mean to say nothing happens ... there's an unexpectedly sweet feeling of sorrowful closure when it all winds up. Still, I was in it for the ride, not the destination.
McCracken’s prose... flows according to a clear plan, but then, like a rogue ball, veers off course. Sometimes McCracken hits her mark, delivering a surprisingly tender scene or laugh-out-loud funny line, while some of her passages don’t connect to anything at all ... Bertha is a wonderful character, bucking all tradition as she encourages the women of Salford to bowl with her without any separation from the male patrons ... Bowlaway’s narrative tree only gets weaker as its branches stray further from the solid roots provided by Bertha’s story. It’s a real shame that the novel is just never as good after its first half, when the story’s matriarch is a direct actor and not just a progenitor to other characters and narratives. Some characters simply can’t reconcile with Bertha’s death, and the book itself never really recovers either ... McCracken... has pieced together a series of small dramas that sometimes line up like perfectly set pins and sometimes feel as frustratingly separated as a seven-ten split.
Bowlaway spirits readers into an astonishing world ... McCracken’s prose — canny wisdom laid on in swaths of fearless, quirky, galvanizing language — gives consistent joy. Almost every page glitters with quotable treasure ... This is the risk of Bowlaway: its bighearted, cockamamie tone — playful, bittersweet, fond — takes a number of bewilderingly violent dives. By calmly folding such tragedies into the mix, McCracken seems to be insisting that there’s no banishing them: that straight-up horror must rightfully partner all the fun-house momentum ... With this finely wrought, moving saga, McCracken’s project is surely big as they come: to convey, in a kind of parallel universe, the poignancy and mystery of human effort; how we handle what we’re given.
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...is just kooky and charming enough to work.
To me [the writing] goes down like treacle and quickly becomes indigestible ... Bowlaway is ersatz history, dressing up contemporary values and concerns in period costume. In its singsong quirkiness it reminded me of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! If you like those books and you’re a fan of the lanes, you may be the target audience.
... Elizabeth McCracken marries the everyday with the otherworldly ... The fundamental loneliness that defines these characters, who all keep something of themselves deeply private, creates a sense of magic around marriages, divorces, births and deaths. Their interwoven stories are by turns heartbreaking and beautiful, defined by, as McCracken writes in the first chapter, love ... Reading like a tale told secondhand from Salford’s best storyteller—wise in the historical and fantastical details—Bowlaway is an epic of the wins and losses that make up the average life.
To tell a good tale, you need drama—and in this area, Bowlaway spares no expense ... In Bowlaway, McCracken’s prose is well-tooled, hilarious and tender, thoughtful and jocular. Her characters inhabit their world so completely, so bodily, that they could’ve truly existed. Her detailed observations make the bizarre seem plausible, and always enjoyable.
... enchanting ... When you think you’ve got a handle on this novel, McCracken shakes it up ... A less skilled or confident writer wouldn’t dare kill her heroine off at the end of the first act, but McCracken is no ordinary writer, and Bertha’s presence is keenly felt for the rest of the novel, which spans about 60 years ... McCracken’s prose is a dance. Sometimes it’s ecstatic — the words seem to leap from each other in the most unpredictable moves ... McCracken’s prose is striking in its originality, but once you’re accustomed to it, you can’t remember reading anything else. It’s the kind of writing that has the ability to alter the language of your dreams ... It’s impossible not to fall under McCracken’s spell. Bowlaway is a rare treasure, a perfect and precious gift.
Under the gaze of McCracken's narrator... every life feels both plain-faced and extraordinary, with an undercurrent of yearning that leaves you with a pleasant ache at the back of your throat ... McCracken's love of language is the catching kind. You get the sense there's no exquisite turn of phrase she'd turn down, if it occurred to her. Might that lead to belaboring the point, in another sort of book? Sure, but in Bowlaway, the journey through McCracken's lush, piercing prose is the destination.
... Bowlaway, will delight readers of her previous novels ... McCracken has always been a master of bringing quirky characters to life — and Bowlaway is chock full of peculiar personages ... Many of McCracken’s gifts are on full display here. She deftly sketches her character’s emotional thoughts while offering up memorable images... and humorous, pointed asides... and finishing with a sweeping, yet deeply personal analysis of another character ... All of which is to say, McCracken, as is her wont, has written a masterfully crafted, moving novel filled with memorable characters for whom she feels great empathy — empathy she inspires in her readers as well. Readers, undoubtedly, will be bowled over by Bowlaway.
Bowlaway, Elizabeth McCracken’s first novel in 18 years, is a great American candy-color Buddenbrooks ... Swap the family with their grain business in Thomas Mann’s novel for the Truitts and their bowling alley in Salford, north of Boston, and you will have the stuff of McCracken’s rambunctious saga ... With its whimsy and wackiness, this is a funhouse of a novel. Even the most incidental of characters are granted glorious vignettes ... 'Nothing is for sure.’ And so it is in the unpredictable and startling world of Bowlaway.
Bowlaway treads what at first appears to be quirky, lighthearted territory, tracking the colorful characters who pass through a candlepin bowling alley ... [But] Bowlaway is mostly concerned with pain: how we inflict it on each other, and how we keep going, year after year, as our burdens pile up. If that sounds bleak, know that McCracken’s gift is to deliver that pain wrapped in astounding sentences and characters who leap off the page ... Much of the pleasure of Bowlaway lies in its poetry; the book is best read pen in hand, ready to underline standout sentences ... You don’t read a McCracken book for plot or speed, and I felt my attention start to lag about two-thirds through. Things pick up ... In the end, it may not be possible to bowl away sorrow, but it does help pass the time.
McCracken is a beloved bard of the eccentric, the misbegotten, and the unfathomable ... McCracken writes with exuberant precision, ingenious lyricism, satirical humor, and warmhearted mischief and delight. Though some otherworldly elements feel forced, McCracken is unerring in her spirited emotional and social discernment. This compassionate and rambunctious saga about love, grief, prejudice, and the courage to be one’s self chimes with novels by John Irving, Audrey Niffenegger, and Alice Hoffman.
More than many writers, McCracken understands the vast variety of ways to be human and the vast variety of ways human beings have come up with to love each other, not all of them benevolent ... McCracken's parade of Dickensian grotesques fall in love, feud, reproduce, vanish, and reappear, all with a ridiculous dignity that many readers, if they’re honest, will cringe to recognize from their own lives ... Her psychological acuity transforms what might otherwise have been a twee clutter of oddball details into moving metaphors for the human condition ... Parents and children, lovers, brothers and sisters, estranged spouses, work friends and teammates all slam themselves together and fling themselves apart across the decades in the glorious clatter of McCracken’s unconventional storytelling.
McCracken writes with a natural lyricism that sports vivid imagery and delightful turns of phrase. Her distinct humor enlivens the many plot twists that propel the narrative, making for a novel readers will sink into and savor.