BOOK REVIEW: ‘Remarkably Bright Creatures’ by Shelby Van Pelt

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This debut novel is somewhat whimsical and totally delightful. Set in fictional Sowell Bay near Seattle, it is a story of love, grief, the fear of aging and friendship. And yet, it is still amusing. 

Part of the novel is told by Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus who is somewhat sarcastic and very intelligent. He has been in captivity at the Sowell Bay Aquarium for over three years. 

Tova Sullivan is a 70-year-old woman who works nights at the aquarium. Cleaning and talking to the animals helps her stay busy and productive. Tova is grieving the recent death of her husband and the loss of her son 30 years ago. She thinks the police have it wrong when they say her son Erik’s death was a suicide.

When she is not at the aquarium, she enjoys visiting with her longtime friends known as the Knit-Wits. The local grocery store owner, Ethan, is her friend as well, but she is oblivious to his flirting. To the distress of her friends, Tova decides to sell her house and belongings and put herself in a nursing home. She tells the Knit-Wits Mary Ann and Barbara, “I don’t have children who will come stay with me when I’ve had a fall. I don’t have grandchildren who will stop over to unclog my drain or make sure I’m taking my pills. And I won’t put that burden on my friends and neighbors.” 

Another one of Tova’s friends is Marcellus, the octopus in residence at the aquarium. The giant Pacific octopuses are ingenious creatures. Known to escape from their enclosures and search for “live food,” they can pick locks and open jars. They can even differentiate one human from another. Tova has seen Marcellus escape from his tank and has helped him return.

The book’s other narrative is about 30-year-old Cameron, who was abandoned by his mother when he was 9. He has never met his father. He lives in a trailer park in California with his aunt. Cameron has trouble holding down a job and would rather play with his rock band. Cameron finds a class ring in his mother’s belongings. When he sees it is from the high school in Sowell Bay, he is convinced his father must live there. He heads to Sowell Bay thinking his father owes him back child support.

The three characters meet through connections with the aquarium. When Tova injures her ankle, Cameron temporarily takes Tova’s job cleaning the aquarium. Tova goes to the aquarium every night to teach Cameron how to clean to her standards. Cameron finds Marcellus fascinating as well. And Marcellus studies them both.

While “Remarkably Bright Creatures” is unlikely, it is poignant and heartwarming. It reminds us that even if we do not have family, friends can be just what we need.

Shelby Van Pelt is originally from the Pacific Northwest. “Remarkably Bright Creatures” is her first book. It is a New York Times bestseller, a nominee for Best Fiction of 2022 and a nominee for Best Debut Novel of 2022. Van Pelt said she was inspired to write the book from a viral video of a giant Pacific octopus trying to escape from the Seattle Aquarium.

Cathy Lay Mayor grew up in Cullman and graduated from Cullman High School in 1976. She says when she writes book reviews, she tries to remember what Mrs. Gilbert taught her in 11th-grade English. She lived in Dothan for more than 30 years and is married with three adult children and six grandchildren. She retired to Panama City, but still calls Alabama home.