Remarkably Bright Creatures was a book chosen by my book club a few months past. The Chicago Tribune named it one of the best books of summer. While I haven’t found that books recommended by various newspapers are generally good reads, this one is so charming, so well-conceived and written, and so deceptively sensitive that I fell in love with it.
One of its main characters is Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus. Octopus? you might ask. Yes, a cantankerous creature who lives at the Sowell Bay Aquarium and considers it his prison. He knows his days are numbered, according to his countdown from the day he was captured and brought there. As you can infer, Marcellus is a very intelligent octopus.
Marcellus allows himself to become acquainted with the elderly Tova Sullivan, who works the night shift at the aquarium, mopping floors and emptying trash since her husband died. She has wonderful friends but has always stayed busy as a coping mechanism, something she’s been doing since her eighteen-year-old-son vanished from a sailboat in Puget Sound thirty years prior. Alone among employees, she always greets Marcellus and talks to him.
You might find it difficult to accept an octopus as a main character, one who has the ability to think and narrate in English and make humorous and heartbreaking observations of his world. But octopi are intelligent creatures (I’ve refused to eat them for years) so it’s only a little stretch of the imagination. His nightly escapades getting out of his tank to find food (he deplores his diet and is always hungry) and explore the aquarium are very entertaining, and he and Tova bond when she saves him when he stays out of water longer than his 18 minute limit.
Cameron, the third major character, has a bad breakup with his girlfriend and loses his job. He camps on a friend’s couch and appears at first to be a lovable loser – that is, until he finds a high school ring among his long-lost mother’s belongings. This takes him Sowell Bay in search of the man he thinks is his father. He finds employment substituting for Tova when she hurts her leg and meets Marcellus.
Marcellus knows a great deal of what goes on around him and ultimately deduces what happened to Tova’s son. But how can a mere octopus reveal the truth to her?
There are a lot of human issues interwoven in the book’s narrative – child abandonment, aging, teen pregnancy, the loss of loved ones – but the story is told with such love, hope, and joy that despite the angst of each character’s troubles, you cannot but remain engaged with the story and the world the author has created.
I loved this book and especially Marcellus. I will leave it to the reader to discover how all of the story lines intertwine and resolve. And I did shed a few tears at the end.
This is the author’s debut novel and what an exceptional job she has done. The characters, the descriptions of the Washington coast, and the mystery embedded in it make this an unforgettable book.
I rate this book a 5 out of 5, and higher if I could.
About the author (from Amazon):
When Shelby Van Pelt isn’t feeding her flash-fiction addiction, she’s juggling cats while wrangling children. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, she’s currently missing the mountains in the suburbs of Chicago.
On her website, www.shelbyvanpelt.com
On Twitter @shelbyvanpelt
and on Instagram @shelbyvanpeltwrites.