Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was definitely a cynic when I first heard about Shelby Van Pelt's novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures . A talking octopus and the little old lady who befriends this hyper-intelligent sea creature?
"What is this?" I wondered aloud. "the literary version of Finding Dory?"
Fortunately for me, Remarkably Bright Creatures is a refreshing, heartfelt entry into the modern "literary fiction" canon. Although I was initially skeptical about reading Shelby Van Pelt's debut novel, the book grew on me as I worked my way through its 368 pages. I couldn't help but think about Anxious People during my reading of Remarkably Bright Creatures. In many ways, Remarkably Bright Creatures feels like a lost Fredrik Backman book: Backman's hallmark blend of humor, tragedy, and bizarre circumstances are equally encapsulated in Van Pelt's novel. As with Backman's style, the use of intertwining narratives and alternating perspectives helps foster some wonderful dramatic irony and facilitates clever plot points. However, whereas Backman tends to use an omniscient third-person narrator with a misanthropic perspective, Van Pelt reserves a similarly cynical bent for one very unique character: Marcellus the Octopus. Yes, ladies and gents and non-binary folks, the inner monologue of a hyper-intelligent cephalopod is threaded throughout this novel. Needless to say, this is not your mother's dramedy.
Despite its slow start, Remarkably Bright Creatures picks up steam about 1/3 of the way in. Van Pelt alternates chapters with a few intertwining stories: Tova Sullivan, a widowed woman whose son vanished the summer after his high school graduation (and who serves as the cleaning crew at the Sowell Bay Aquarium in Washington); Cameron Cassmore, a thirty-year-old underachiever with a photographic memory and underutilized intelligence; Ethan Mack, a transplanted Scotsman with a fondness for classic rock (and a deeper fondness for Tova Sullivan); Avery, a single mother who runs her own business; and, of course, the aforementioned octopus, Marcellus.
Who is the most memorable, insightful, and endearing character in this terrific tomb? Undoubtedly, that award goes to Marcellus the Octopus.
As the various stories intertwine and weave their way towards a somewhat-predictable moment of serendipitous reunion, the reader is privy to a flurry of witticisms from Marcellus and a bountiful bevy of grief from the human characters. Every mammal in Van Pelt's novel is deeply flawed and scarred from traumatic life experiences; however, the depth of that pain is redeemed (or at least alleviated) in the end by the bonds of the novel's characters. Like suction cups on a tentacle, these various plotlines are all interconnected in (occasionally) surprising ways, making for a cohesive novel with a relatively tidy conclusion.
The audiobook version of the novel (which I utilized back-and-forth while reading the print version) utilizes two voice actors: Marin Ireland and Michael Urie. While Ireland is in fine form (as always), it's Urie's tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Marcellus that really steals the show. Marin capably utilizes a variety of voices, tones, and accents during her portions of the novel, but Urie's spin on our favorite cephalopod elevates the audiobook to grander aspirations. Once again, Marcellus the Octopus wins the hearts of Van Pelt's readers - in print and audio incarnations.
Whether or not you're a fan of aquatic lifeforms, you'll find something powerful and enjoyable in the pages of Remarkably Bright Creatures. And, if you're a misanthropic grump who spies on the world with a critical lens, Marcellus the Octopus might be your new favorite character.
P.S. - Shelby Van Pelt scores some major coolness points (in my eyes, at least) for including some choice references to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Deadheads of the literary world, rejoice!
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.