Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Hello, fellow reader. Before going too far I must confess something to you: I had ulterior motives when deciding which book my review would focus upon. Nothing nefarious, but with you in mind. My motive is Remarkably Bright Creatures is the book selection for Joplin Reads Together, the library’s premier community read. Common at public libraries across the country, a community read encourages participants from the community to all read one book, and the library provides programs that coincide with the selected book. Through the month of April Joplin Public Library will have a multitude of programs that relate to themes within Remarkably Bright Creatures. There is no cost to participate in Joplin Reads Together or any of the related programs, AND I’m not done with the awesomeness yet – Shelby Van Pelt is visiting the library April 27th to discuss her book. Another plus to the community read is participation is whatever you’d like it to be; you can read the book and come to all the programs in April, or simply read the book and come just to the author visit (or don’t, that’s an option, too!). However one is inclined to participate, Joplin Reads Together offers a shared experience with the library and readers in the community.
In a small tourist town in northern Washington septuagenarian Tova Sullivan works at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, cleaning the outside of aquariums and mopping the floors after closing. As she makes her way from aquarium to aquarium she talks to the sea creatures inside. While Tova acknowledges the animals don’t know what she’s saying and don’t respond (or so she initially thinks), this characteristic made Tova instantly likable to me for her kind, calm manner. A widow, Tova’s husband recently passed away, a sorrow she carries with her along with grief for her son, who died under mysterious circumstances 30 years prior. At the Aquarium Tova seems to find some solace for her loneliness.
Also at the Sowell Bay Aquarium is Marcellus McSquiddles, an irritable giant pacific octopus that vehemently rejects, among other things, his mortifying last name (he is an octopus after all, NOT a squid). Marcellus has a lot of opinions; he spends his days observing the people that come to the Aquarium, perplexed by their human ways and possessing an uncanny ability to pinpoint facts about them just by observation. In Marcellus, Van Pelt creates an entertaining and funny character that pulled me in. I found myself looking forward to the chapters told from his perspective. Also in Marcellus Van Pelt creates a friend for Tova; Marcellus listens to all Tova has to say as she cleans, and finds his own way to communicate back. As a result of this friendship and the grief Marcellus sees within Tova he is determined to assist her in uncovering what happened to her son all those years ago.
In addition to Tova and Marcellus the novel is full of characters from around the town that are friends to Tova and invested in her life. There’s grocer Ethan who has a crush on Tova, the Knit-Wits who are Tova’s closest friend group, and new-to-town traveler Cameron who is searching for his family. Many of the novel’s characters seem to be on the verge of a new start, driven by their unique searches for that certain something missing in their life. Tova especially is haunted by her past and how to move forward with her future. Can Marcellus help her?
Within Remarkably Bright Creatures Shelby Van Pelt creates a realistic fiction that pulls at the heartstrings. Van Pelt manages to address the heavy burden of loss and grief in a relatable manner, all while maintaining a gentle, often humorous narrative. Tova’s struggle with how to leave the past in the past, while also bringing its memories to the future, is something I think many readers could identify with, especially those that have lost a loved one. While I myself am not 70 years old like Tova is, I found her additional struggle with aging, particularly after losing those closest to her, a necessary conversation that should be examined by a community often and purposefully. How can we assist those in our community that are, day to day, alone? What is the difference between the community we live in, and the community we choose to make for ourselves? If this is a book you pick up to read I hope it brings you the entertainment and thought provoking questions it brought to me. And if Joplin Reads Together is something that interests you I hope to see you at one of the library’s April programs to hear what you thought of Tova and Marcellus.
Review by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator