Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Title: Remarkably Bright Creatures
Author: Shelby Van Pelt
Publisher: Ecco
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

For fans of A Man Called Ove, a charming, witty and compulsively readable exploration of friendship, reckoning, and hope, tracing a widow’s unlikely connection with a giant Pacific octopus.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.

Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn’t dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors–until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.

Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova’s son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it’s too late.

Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel is a gentle reminder that sometimes taking a hard look at the past can help uncover a future that once felt impossible.

If I tell you that I’m recommending a book with parts narrated by an octopus, would you think I’m joking? I hope not, because I’m hear to tell you that Remarkably Bright Creatures (a) has an octopus as one of its POV characters and (b) is simply too great to miss!

Remarkably Bright Creatures opens with Tova, a 70-year-old woman, a life-long resident of Sowell Bay, Washington, and a night-shift aquarium employee. Tova loves the solitude and peace she finds in lovingly cleaning every nook and cranny of the aquarium after hours, saying a quiet hello to each animal on display as she cleans the glass of their enclosures and wipes the floor.

Tova does not actually have to work for a living — she’s a widow with enough funds to living comfortably in her house and not worry about her financial situation. However, she’s also a deeply sad and lonely person. Yes, she has friends (the “Knit-Wits”) whom she gets together with each week, and the own of the local grocery store seems to have a massive (but unrequited) crush on her. For thirty years, though, Tova has been carrying the deep grief filling her heart after the death of her only son, 18-year-old Erik, in a boating accident that’s never been fully explained.

Soon after we meet Tova, we also meet Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus who observes the world around him from within his enclosure, and who narrates the story of his captivity and his knowledge of his impending demise as he nears the end of his species’ typical lifespan. Marcellus sees all and understands everything he sees. He’s also an escape artist, letting himself out of his enclosure through the tiniest of gaps to roam the aquarium at night in search of treats (the sea cucumbers are particularly yummy, although he tries to hold back to prevent anyone starting to question why the sea cucumber population keeps decreasing).

Oh, and also? Marcellus is super funny:

IF THERE IS ONE TOPIC OF CONVERSATION HUMANS never exhaust, it is the status of their outdoor environment. And for as much as they discuss it, their incredulity is . . . well, incredible. That preposterous phrase: Can you believe this weather we’re having? How many times have I heard it? One thousand, nine hundred and ten, to be exact. One and a half times a day, on average. Tell me again about the intelligence of humans. They cannot even manage to comprehend predictable meteorological events.

When Tova and Marcellus cross paths on one of his midnight adventures, they connect and seem to understand one another. While Tova can only wonder whether what she picks up from him is real or just something she imagines, we know from Marcellus’s POV chapters that he knows much more than Tova could dream of, including some key facts about Erik’s disappearance.

As the story progresses, more characters are introduced… including Cameron, a 30-year-old man who’s been rootless and unable to stick with anything in his life, ever since being abandoned by his mother as a young child. When he stumbles upon a lead that might just help him identify his biological father, he hits the road for Sowell Bay, where his path becomes entwined with that of Tova and Marcellus.

Does this sounds weird to you? Yes, Marcellus is a very unusual narrator — but at its heart, Remarkably Bright Creatures is about connection, family, and love. Tova is a tough character in some ways, so entrenched in her ways, so determined to keep herself apart from others and not let herself be touched by other people’s care or warmth. Yet we see throughout the book how her pain and loss have informed the rest of her life, so even though she has good memories of her life with her late husband, the shadow of her son’s death has darkened every moment since.

I loved seeing Tova’s interactions with Marcellus, and how just that little bit of understanding that passes between them enables her to open up to life once more. The story of Cameron’s search for his father is amusing, but the outcome is obvious from the start, so while I enjoyed some of his misadventures, parts seemed to take slightly too long to get resolved.

That’s really just a minor quibble. Overall, I loved the freshness of the viewpoints in this story, and the lovely sense of heart and connection that lies underneath the action. The characters are memorable, the storytelling is lovely (and has plenty of funny moments to balance out the sadness), and the book ends with a very satisfying wrap-up.

I really enjoyed Remarkably Bright Creatures, and absolutely recommend it.

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