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Cover of Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Remarkably Bright Creatures

by Shelby Van Pelt

GENRE: Contempory Fiction, Magical Realism, Mystery

After Tova Sullivan's husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she's been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.

Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn't dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors--until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.

Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova's son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it's too late.

Shelby Van Pelt's debut novel is a gentle reminder that sometimes taking a hard look at the past can help uncover a future that once felt impossible.

Discussion Guide

Headshot of Shelby Van Pelt

Author Biography

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Shelby Van Pelt lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her family. Remarkably Bright Creatures is her first novel. - Harper Collins Publishers

More titles by this author



In the sleepy town of Sowell Bay, Washington, Tova Sullivan stands on the precipice of a new life. There's nothing left for her in her childhood home. Her husband is dead, and her son Erik drowned many years ago. With her grief threatening to consume her, Tova considers how she's going to move on while finding comfort in her job at the local aquarium. She's made friends with an intelligent octopus, Marcellus, who also provides his perspective on the matter. Especially adept at crawling out of his tank, Marcellus is searching for meaning as he comes to terms with the end of his own short life. Additionally, readers meet Cameron Cassmore, a Californian in Sowell Bay looking for his lost father, and Ethan Mack, a grocery-store owner who fancies Tova. As her involvement with both men deepens, Tova questions her intention to leave. Tova's gentle relationship with Marcellus is the heart of Van Pelt's debut. The octopus' point of view, though unusual, brings a magical haze to the novel, even as Tova and Marcellus realize their story is coming to an end. A unique and luminous book for fans of Eleanor Ray's The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton (2021).

Publisher’s Weekly

A cross-species friendship helps solve a pair of decades-old mysteries in Pelt's whimsical if far-fetched debut. After Tova Sullivan's husband dies, she takes a night job as janitor at an aquarium, where she enjoys talking to the sea creatures. She's particularly fond of Marcellus, a giant octopus who shies away from most human attention. But when Tova finds Marcellus out of his tank and helps him back to safety, he becomes fond of her. Meanwhile, Cameron Cassmore comes to town looking for his long-lost father and joins Tova on the night shift, disrupting her routine. However, the two soon realize that Cameron's mother, who disappeared after leaving him with an aunt when he was nine, and Tova's son, who died after falling off a boat decades earlier, might have known each other. Marcellus, who lived in the sea before his capture, is the only creature who knows for sure. Pelt imbues Tova, Cameron, and Marcellus with pathos, but her abrupt cycling between their perspectives can be disorienting, and her no-frills prose is ill-suited for the anthropomorphic conceit at the story's core. While the premise intrigues, this fantastical take on human- animal connection requires a bit too much suspended disbelief. Agent: Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency. (May)

Library Journal

DEBUT Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living in the Puget Sound's Sowell Bay Aquarium, is running on borrowed time as he nears the end of his life. He is befriended by Tova, the 70-year-old widow who cleans the aquarium and shines the glass of Marcellus's tank. Tova still grieves the disappearance of her only child Erik 30 years earlier, and the more recent death of her husband. Hundreds of miles away in California, Cam, a rock musician who's lost his band, his job, and his girlfriend, finds the Sowell Bay High School class ring of his long-gone mother and heads out to track down the father he never knew. Cam's hard-luck life follows him north, and he eventually crosses paths with Tova when he is hired to take over her duties as she recovers from a workplace injury. Marcellus--a thief, escape artist with a mission, and brilliant observer of human behavior--narrates his chapters with a whip-smart wit born of his nine brains, three hearts, and the impatient urgency of wanting to help his beloved Tova before his time runs out. VERDICT Poet and short story writer Van Pelt has written an irresistibly wonderful, warm, funny, heartbreaking first novel, full of gentle people (and one octopus) bravely powering through their individual scars left by lives that have beaten them up but have not brought them down.--Beth E. Andersen

Kirkus Reviews

A lonely woman discovers that sometimes humans don't have all the answers. Tova Sullivan's best friend is an octopus. A giant Pacific octopus named Marcellus, to be precise, and he is that--the novel opens with the first of several short chapters narrated in the first person (unlike the rest of the book) by the octopus himself, who can, as he points out, do many things we don't know he can do. What he can't do is escape from captivity in a small public aquarium in the fictional town of Sowell Bay, near Puget Sound. Tova, too, has lived in the town for most of her life, in a house built by her father. At age 70, she's stoic but lives with layers of grief. Her estranged brother has just died, with no reconciliation between them, and her beloved husband died a couple of years before from cancer. But the unsealable wound is the disappearance 30 years ago of her only child. Erik was an 18-year-old golden boy when he vanished, and the police, although they found no body, believe he killed himself. Tova does not. She fills her days with visits with her longtime friends, a group of gently eccentric women who call themselves the Knit-Wits, and fills her nights cleaning at the aquarium. There, she prides herself on keeping the glass and concrete scrupulously clean while chatting with the inhabitants, although she saves her deep conversations for Marcellus. Lately she's been concerned about the way he's been escaping from his tank and cruising through the other enclosures for live snacks- -and sometimes visiting nearby rooms, which risks his life. Tova is too preoccupied to pay attention to the sweet but awkward flirting of Ethan, the Scotsman who runs the grocery store, but she does get drawn into the complicated life of a young man named Cameron who wanders into Sowell Bay. Although Tova and other characters are dealing with serious problems like loss, grief, and aging, Van Pelt maintains a light and often warmly humorous tone. Tova's quest to figure out what happened to Erik weaves her back into other people's lives--and occasionally into someone's tentacles. A debut novel about a woman who befriends an octopus is a charming, warmhearted read. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


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