Imagine an octopus, trapped in an aquarium: What might he notice, share, taunt and attempt? In Remarkably Bright Creatures, first-time author Shelby Van Pelt asks such questions about life in a tank—and outside of it.
Each evening, recently widowed Tova Sullivan methodically and meticulously works as a cleaner at the Sowell Bay Aquarium. Staying active sustains her, as she is still reeling from her son’s mysterious disappearance many years ago, when he was 18. Tova begins to form a cautious bond with Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus who lives in the aquarium and sneaks out to explore the other tanks and corners of the building. As Marcellus and Tova become increasingly attuned to and curious about each other, he notices details and secrets that help her find a new direction and purpose.
Remarkably Bright Creatures introduces other narrators and perspectives that are seemingly disconnected from Tova and Marcellus, albeit still engaging enough to propel the story forward. The chapters are short, making it easy for readers to dive into each subsequent voice, wondering what secrets will be uncovered. It’s a delight to piece the many stories together.
While the individual characters—human and cephalopod alike—are charming and complex, Remarkably Bright Creatures also emphasizes the importance of community. Locations such as the aquarium, a grocery store, a camper and the Sowell Bay area bring people together, providing spaces to foster conversation, gossip and curiosity. As everyday lives overlap, the reader wonders if crushes will be requited, if families will find each other and if estrangements will end. Will Tova learn more about what happened to her son? And what does Marcellus know?
As Van Pelt’s zippy, fun-to-follow prose engages at every turn, readers will find themselves rooting for the many characters, hoping that they’ll find whatever it is they seek: answers to mysteries, family, joy. Each character is profoundly human, with flaws and eccentricities crafted with care. But what makes Van Pelt’s novel most charming and joyful is the tender friendship between species, and the ways Tova and Marcellus make each other ever more remarkable and bright.
As Shelby Van Pelt’s zippy, fun-to-follow prose engages at every turn, readers will find themselves rooting for her many characters—human and cephalopod alike.
Annie Hartnett’s second novel, Unlikely Animals, is striking and richly imagined, with a voice that is wholly its own. The story is told by the collective dead of a small New Hampshire town, with all the boundaries and unknowns that are inherent when your storytellers are buried in a cemetery.
The town’s dead are compelled to speak when Emma Starling returns home after a failed attempt at medical school. Although she was born with a natural ability to heal, the ability seems to have deserted her, leaving her unable to help her father, Clive, who has a brain disease. Despite his tremors, Clive is determined to solve the mystery of Emma’s best friend, Crystal, who has disappeared.
In many ways, Emma’s return home is messy; her brother is recovering from an opioid addiction, and Clive has begun to frequently and unpredictably hallucinate the existence of various animals, as well as the ghost of long-dead naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes. Layer in Emma’s new job as a substitute fifth grade teacher and other delightful moments, and you have the makings of a propulsive, inviting tale.
Emma and her family are endearing, charming characters to observe. They’re flawed, searching and struggling to be seen. Although Unlikely Animals deals with many issues—aging parents, the opioid epidemic, life in rural New England, family dreams and pressures—it does so with intention and care, never heavy-handedness. The magic of Hartnett’s novel stems from the balance of these weighty topics with the story’s intrinsic playfulness, and in sections that explore the myth and history of Baynes and his domesticated animals.
Ultimately, the story of Unlikely Animals belongs to the animals themselves, from Clive’s hallucinatory rabbits to Emma’s adopted dog. They remind us of wisdom beyond human experience, offering moments of clear-eyed joy as Emma finds her way and strives to help others do the same.
The magic of Annie Hartnett’s second novel is the balance of heavy topics with the story’s intrinsic playfulness.
Imagine that countless statues all over New York City share the likeness of one young, beautiful woman. In The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis, that woman is Lillian Carter, who, after her mother’s death of the Spanish flu, ends up working at the Frick mansion, which is now home to the revered art museum of the same name. The novel moves between Lillian’s story and that of Veronica, a model who, nearly 50 years later, finds herself following a mystery via secret messages in the mansion.
In each of your novels, architectural history comes so clearly alive! Tell us a bit about your research process. Did this new book challenge or evolve your process in any way? Did it lead you anywhere especially surprising? When it comes to research, the first thing I do is get a good look inside the building and then interview experts on the subject and the era. For The Magnolia Palace, I was able to get a wonderful behind-the-scenes tour of the Frick Collection in January 2020, from the bowling alley in the basement up to the top floor where the servants slept.
Usually I’d make several return trips as I write the first draft, but the city went into lockdown, making that impossible. So I was thrilled to discover that the Frick’s website includes a wonderful floor plan with a 360-degree view of each of the public rooms. If I needed to check out what artwork was above the fireplace in the library, for example, I could find the answer with just a couple of clicks. Thank goodness, as otherwise I would’ve been really stuck.
When you pass by or enter an incredible old building, what’s the first thing you look for? I’m always curious as to what has changed over time. How does the building compare to the one that was originally constructed? How has the neighborhood changed over the decades? It’s those contrasts that help me decide what time periods might work best for a novel. As I walk by, I can’t help wondering about all of the people who walked its halls, all of the ghosts that remain.
Obviously a sense of place plays a huge role in your work, from libraries and hotels to mansions and museums—and of course, the whole city of New York. What details do you seek out to bring these spaces into such vivid relief? I’m always looking for the strange details, the ones that are fun to describe because they will surprise the reader. It might be the grimace of a gargoyle over a doorway or the catwalks that span the enormous windows of Grand Central that end up drawing my attention and making it into the novel. We New Yorkers often think we know these places so well, but it’s amazing how little we “see” as we wander the streets.
How did you decide on the title The Magnolia Palace? Titles are tough for my novels, as I’m looking for a title that’s not too on the nose but which describes the location nicely and has resonance within the plot. That’s asking a lot. Choosing titles for each book is a team effort involving my editor and my agent, and they’re often the ones who have the best ideas.
For this novel, I realized the gorgeous magnolia trees outside the Frick would be a nice touchstone, one that I could bring into the story with the search for the (fictional) Magnolia diamond. And Dutton’s art department came up with that gorgeous cover with the magnolia blossoms—it was perfect.
The art in this novel is impressively catalogued. How did you choose which pieces to highlight in the novel? What do you think they add to the story? The scavenger hunt scenes, with clues that lead to several pieces in the Frick art collection, were really fun to write. I tended to choose works of art that have interesting backstories, ones that further illuminate what’s going on with the characters on the page. For example, the woman who sat for the George Romney painting that’s included in the scavenger hunt led a scandalous life as a mistress and a muse. When Veronica comes upon it and learns the history, it deepens how she feels about being made into an object of art as well.
I love the dimensions of these women—Lillian and Veronica, as well as Helen Frick, daughter of Henry—and wonder how you built the complexities of each of them. Where did you find inspiration for these women? And more broadly, how do you choose what types of women will occupy and make their marks on the buildings at the heart of your novels? As I research, I’m looking for women from history who accomplished great things but have since been forgotten. The inspiration for Lillian came from the carving of a nude woman over the entrance to the Frick. The model who posed for it was Audrey Munson, who achieved great fame in the 1910s but met a tragic end. She was gorgeous and successful and then suddenly an outcast, and I knew I wanted to include her story in the narrative.
The more I read about Helen Frick, the more I adored her. She was acerbic and smart, yet she was mocked in the press for her eccentricities. As a writer, I wondered what would’ve happened if Audrey and Helen crossed paths in real life, and the plot developed from there.
Then, once I decided to set part of the book in the 1960s, I thought it would be fun to have a character who is also a model, as a way to compare and contrast how women’s roles have been valued (or not) over time, and Veronica bubbled up out of that.
What is your process for writing braided narratives? How do you know when they’re working well together? Once I know who the main characters are, I brainstorm scenes and create each timeline separately. Braiding them together is the toughest part, as each novel contains an element of mystery, and I have to make sure I don’t give away a clue too soon in one timeline and thereby destroy the tension in the other.
It’s always a mess at first, but once I have it down on paper, I’m eager to start writing the first draft. I write one timeline first all the way through (usually the older one), then the other, and then do a read-through to see if they work together. There’s still a lot of tweaking to be done, but by then the structure is usually pretty solid.
What is your ultimate day in New York City? Which museums or special places are especially dear to you? I’ve called the city home for 35 years now, and it’s full of wonderful places. The Frick Collection is dear to me, to be sure. I also love grabbing a pastry at Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, or heading to the Campbell Bar at Grand Central for a cocktail. Hitting all three in one day would be a dream.
What are you reading now? I’m excited to start Ann Patchett’s latest book of essays, These Precious Days. She’s such a champion of authors and booksellers and is masterful working in both fiction and nonfiction. She’s probably as close to an author superhero as there is.
Photo of Fiona Davis by Deborah Feingold
Bestselling author Fiona Davis transforms New York City’s architectural history into winning fiction, and her latest, The Magnolia Palace, builds upon the secrets of the Frick Collection in a delightful blend of emotion and adventure.
When I was a kid, I had fantasies of what life must be like to live inside a museum. What stories and secrets of art might I discover? In The Magnolia Palace, Fiona Davis textures such imaginings, setting her novel inside the Frick mansion and alternating between two storylines in 1919 and 1966.
The novel opens in a moment of loss: A famous model named Lillian Carter, who has posed for countless sculptures that adorn New York City landmarks, loses her mother to the Spanish flu in 1919. While Lillian is trying to navigate the complexities of the world, she finds herself caught in an imbroglio, and she runs from the scandal straight to the Frick family home. There she becomes the private secretary to Helen Frick, the challenging daughter of the man who would later transform his mansion into a museum.
Lillian’s story unfolds alongside that of Veronica Weber, a British model in the 1960s who, during a photo shoot at the Frick Collection, gets snowed in and finds herself on quite an adventure.
Within this home and museum, Davis builds a whole world that’s rife with secrets and stories. The novel moves at an engaging pace, with questions waiting to be answered at each turn. Davis knows exactly how to structure a story and how to switch between timelines; even if sometimes you aren’t quite ready to make the jump, you must, in order to find out how it all connects.
A captivating story whose characters are richly drawn, The Magnolia Palace pays particular attention to those who might go unnoticed: the deaf private secretary, the museum intern, the organ player. We discover their private lives and public exposures, which reveal the daily messiness of human lives, the construction of the self and the truths we try so hard to hide.
Spanning the globe from a night market in Taiwan to New York City, Los Angeles and many places in between, Jean Chen Ho’s novel-in-stories weaves together the experiences of two young women, Fiona and Jane. We see their lives unfold together and apart, amid challenges with their parents, flirtations, relationships and financial concerns. Through it all, Fiona and Jane navigate the complexities of their friendship, allowing it to grow, change and reemerge with time.
Fiona and Jane is comprised of chapters that alternate between Jane’s first-person narration and Fiona’s third person. Jane describes growing up and navigating her sense of self, and she ruminates on the ways that her friendship with Fiona grounds and challenges her. Meanwhile, Fiona’s chapters feel more distant for their external narration. The decision to differentiate the two Taiwanese American women’s sections in this way becomes increasingly interesting and important as the story progresses. In fact, it becomes evident that this structure is essential to how the story must be told.
Time is a fascinating factor in the novel as well. The narrative unfurls in the present while moving the reader into snippets of backstory, filling in gaps at just the right moments. Ho also moves us through and across physical and cultural landscapes, revealing how a person can feel both resonance with and distance from one’s community and self.
Ultimately, though, Ho’s characters do the most compelling work. Fiona and Jane—both earnest, curious and heart-full—epitomize the realities of growing up in America as young women, as immigrants, as Asian Americans. Their arcs show how families complicate one’s life while also enriching it, how friends can become a found family, and how each choice can echo in and reflect a person’s whole life.
By the book’s end, readers will feel as though they carry some part of these women with them, as if Fiona and Jane are our friends, as if their stories might yet overlap with our own.
After reading Jean Chen Ho’s novel-in-stories, readers will feel as though they carry some part of Fiona and Jane with them.
Imagine a fig tree speaking, the unexpected perspective its voice would lend to a war-torn island’s history, full of forbidden teenage love, reunions and cultural divides. Such is Elif Shafak’s intergenerational novel of love, loss and family, The Island of Missing Trees.
The novel moves between 1974 Cyprus—as cities collapse amid war, as neighbors are made enemies depending on whether they are Greek or Turkish, Christian or Muslim—and London in the 2010s. Ada Kazantzakis, teenage daughter of Kostas and his wife, Defne, is fascinated and bothered by the fig tree that her botanist father spends so much time and energy tending. While Ada wonders at her father’s obsession, the tree tells her own story, offering the keys to discover how this family came to England, far from the island that Ada only knows in stories, the place that Kostas still calls home.
The novel shifts easily in time and space, but even more interesting is the way that it functions as a story of environment and species. The fig tree notices birds and bats, other trees and ants; she sees and comments upon politics, war, love and the broad impact of human choices. She sees into the hearts of humans, animals and the earth, and tries to convey the beauty and challenges of doing so.
Shafak’s novel, particularly in the meditative moments when the fig tree speaks, asks readers to see beyond themselves, to consider cultures and conflicts that are not their own, to see how each action ripples.
Elif Shafak’s novel asks readers to see beyond themselves, particularly in the meditative moments when a fig tree speaks.
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