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Remarkably Bright Creatures


Remarkably Bright Creatures

Every so often, a debut novel comes along that is so perfectly polished and emotionally resonant that it seems impossible you don't already own several of the author’s previous works. I have no doubt that newcomer Shelby Van Pelt’s REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES will be that book for many this summer.

As Marcellus, the primary narrator, informs readers, the average giant Pacific octopus lives for four years. Brought to the Sowell Bay Aquarium 1,299 days ago (but who’s counting?), Marcellus knows this means that his own life span, his captivity, has 160 days remaining at most. A remarkably bright creature himself --- so says the plaque that adorns his tank --- Marcellus has spent the past three years observing the sticky-fingered, gum-chewing humans who frequent the aquarium, learning about their tastes and patterns through their fingerprints, squeals of delight and marine life education programs.

Humans are not the brightest species, and they are inarguably terrible at communication. But some, like Tova Lindgren Sullivan, the 70-year-old woman who cleans the aquarium at night, are quite special. And even better, they distract Marcellus from his fate, his hunger for the decadent foods of the deep sea, and the secrets he left on the ocean floor.

"Shelby Van Pelt has written the debut of the year --- an absorbing, uplifting novel populated by a cast of perfectly imperfect characters who you will want to root, sob and risk everything for."

Tova is Sowell Bay Aquarium’s oldest and most dedicated employee. And why shouldn’t she be? She lost her beloved husband, Will, to cancer, and her only son, Erik, years before that to a mysterious late-night boating disappearance that the police have labeled a suicide. With nothing but her gossipy cohort of old friends --- the Knit-Wits --- to keep her occupied outside of work, Tova’s dedication to the deep-sea creatures she spends every night with knows no bounds. So one can understand why she’d take a special shine to Marcellus, even after she catches him raiding the break room one evening, having escaped through an impossibly small vent in his tank. As the two strike up a quiet, species-crossing friendship, she starts to reckon with her own lifespan, the increasing attention of her handsome Scottish grocer, Ethan, and the recent loss of her estranged brother.

Further down the coast, in sunny California, feckless Cameron Cassmore has burned through most of his opportunities for love, friendship and employment. Orphaned by his addicted mother and left to his somewhat eccentric aunt, Cameron suffers from a case of “but it’s not my fault,” jumping from failed opportunity to failed opportunity in an attempt to both find and avoid contentment --- after all, having nothing also means having nothing to lose. But when his aunt bequeaths him a ratty old box of his mother’s personal effects, he finds the first clue to his father’s identity, one that takes him up to the Puget Sound, where a run-down aquarium has recently lost its cleaner to a sprained ankle. (At her age, Tova really shouldn’t have been using a shoddy step stool to reach into Marcellus' tank. But how else was she to thank him for returning her lost house key?)

As fate and circumstance draw Marcellus, Tova, Cameron and even Ethan together, Marcellus reveals his biggest secret of all: he knows what happened to Tova’s son, having used his impeccable brain and memory to draw up fingerprints, patterns and clues to solve the mystery. But with his captivity and life drawing to a close, he will have to employ every ounce of skill, inventiveness and hope in his possession to help Tova find closure, the best and only gift he can give to his remarkable friend. This results in a hilarious, transformative and charming adventure that will change everything you believe about grief and acceptance.

Whimsical, immersive and vibrantly written, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES is a truly tender masterpiece about grief, letting go of the past and giving yourself the permission to dream of a future. Character-driven with a propulsive mystery at its heart, it is also a poignant examination of a small-town community, aging and loneliness. Each subject is handled carefully and compassionately, but what truly elevates the narrative is the courageous thrust into the fantastical. Not every book can be narrated by a snobby, grouchy cephalopod, but Van Pelt voices Marcellus’ observations, lamentations and hunger so successfully that you’ll wonder why he isn’t narrating all the books you read.

While Marcellus is, of course, the star of the show, Van Pelt demonstrates a talent for voice and characterization in her portrayals of Tova and Cameron, both at wildly different places in their lives and yet shockingly similar in their searches for contentment and peace. While their journeys are somewhat predictable, they are no less compelling, heart-rending or satisfying. The thrill of reading this book comes not only in the plot, but in the sheer whimsy and tenderness with which Van Pelt infuses it. This is a story that will leave you teary-eyed and with a lump in your throat, but it also will make you feel as if, like Marcellus, you have three full hearts of emotion and compassion for its characters.

With a soaring, surprising style that calls to mind Colleen Oakes and Annie Hartnett, and a tenderness worthy of Jodi Picoult or Fredrik Backman, Shelby Van Pelt has written the debut of the year --- an absorbing, uplifting novel populated by a cast of perfectly imperfect characters who you will want to root, sob and risk everything for.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 6, 2022

Remarkably Bright Creatures
by Shelby Van Pelt

  • Publication Date: May 3, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0063204150
  • ISBN-13: 9780063204157