May 2022

Remarkably Bright Creatures

By Shelby Van Pelt
Review by
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.
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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.

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