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Remarkably Bright Creatures
(Review, Synopsis & Summary)

By Shelby Van Pelt



Book review and synopsis for Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt, a sweet and feel-good novel about a lonely woman, a giant Pacific octopus and a down-on-his luck guy searching for his father.

Synopsis

In Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt, Tova Sullivan is a cleaning woman who works at the aquarium in Sowell Bay, Washington. She mostly works to pass the time since her late husband, Will, passed away from cancer many years ago.

The loss that really haunts her, however, is that of her son Erik, who disappeared when he was just eighteen and is presumed dead. Details of what happened to him are scant. Instead she mostly knows that a small boat with his prints on it was found washed ashore in Puget Sound shortly after he disappeared.

In the aquarium, there is a very intelligent giant Pacific octopus named Marcellus who knows more about the disappearance than he's able to convey.

Meanwhile, Cameron Cassmore is a bright, but unstable young man who is constantly down on his luck. He gets a glimmer of hope in the form of a clue about who his father might be and sets out on following that trail...

(The Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary
See the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of Remarkably Bright Creatures
Quick Plot Summary

The two-paragraph version: Tova is an elderly woman whose son, Erik, disappeared when he was 18 and is presumed dead. She befriends Marcellus, is a highly intelligent octopus at the Sowell Bay Aquarium where Tova works as a cleaner. Marcellus frequently likes to sneak out of his tank to explore. When she gets injured, her temporary replacement is Cameron Cassmore, a young man who has come to Sowell Bay in search of a wealthy man, Simon Brinks, he believes is his father. Marcellus, with his wide range of talents, is able to identify that Tova and Cameron are related. He want to let them know and manages to get Cameron's ID and leaves it where Tova can see it.

Tova learns that Erik had been involved with a girl, Daphne Cassmore, before he disappeared. When she sees Cameron's ID, they realize Erik knew his mother. Meanwhile, Cameron finally gets in touch with Simon, but he learns that Simon and his mother were just friends. He angrily tosses a class ring that Daphne had left him into an aquarium tank, and he heads back to California. But Marcellus fetches the ring and presents it to Tova. Tova recognizes the engraving as Erik's initials. She realizes Cameron must be her grandson and realizes how much he resembles Erik. At the same time, Cameron realizes he can't just run away and should properly wrap things up in Sowell Bay. When he returns, she tells Cameron what she knows. Marcellus also reaches the end of his natural life around then, and Tova returns him into the sea before he dies. The book ends with Tova and Cameron playing scrabble and her going out to the pier to tell Marcellus and Erik that she misses them.


(These subheadings don't appear in the book. I'm including them in order to make this summary easier to navigate.)

INTRODUCING THE CHARACTERS

Marcellus is a highly intelligent giant Pacific octopus who has been in captivity at the Sowell Bay Aquarium in Washington since he was a juvenile. Since the average lifespan of his species is four years, he estimates he has around 160 days left to live.

Tova Sullivan is a cleaning woman at the aquarium. One night, she finds Marcellus out of his tank, tangled up in a mess of power cords in the break room. She soon discovers that Marcellus often escapes his tank and roams around, snacking on the sea creatures in the other tanks. Marcellus can comfortably be out of the water for about 18 minutes at a time.

Tova lives alone. Her late husband Will passed away from cancer many years ago. Before that, their son Erik disappeared when he was 18. He was working a summer job as a deckhand for the ferry when he never came home. Shortly after, they found a small boat washed ashore nearby with his prints on it. The police concluded that he likely took his own life, though Tova never believed it.

Soon, Tova gets the news that her brother Lars has passed away. She asks Ethan Mack, the owner of the local Shop-Way (who has a crush on her), to drive her to the Charter Village long term care facility to pick up his personal effects. It's an impressive, well-run place. She leaves there with a box of Lars's things as well as an application for the facility.

Meanwhile, in Modesto, California, Cameron Cassmore is a 30-year-old man whose mother Daphne abandoned him when he was nine, leaving him to be raised by his loving but quirky older aunt, Jeanne. Jeanne lives in a mobile home because she had to sell her house to pay for some medical bills some years ago. Cameron doesn't know who his father is.

Cameron has difficulty holding down jobs, and when he gets fired from yet another job, his girlfriend Katie kicks him out. He looks through some of his mother's stuff to find anything he can pawn to get some money for a down payment for another apartment, but ends up finding a photo of her with a man he doesn't recognize. He also finds a class ring from their year. He looks through a reunion page for her graduating class to find another photo of them together as well as the man's name -- Simon Brinks, a very wealthy Seattle real estate developer who reportedly lives in Sowell Bay. Broke, desperate and hopeful Simon could be his father, Cameron goes to Washington to track the man down.

At the aquarium, Tova starts talking to Marcellus to relieve her loneliness, and unbeknownst to her Marcellus understands and enjoys their talks. She has a small group of friends, the Knit-Wits, that started off as a knitting group that she meets with weekly, but she has never felt they were capable of understanding the losses in her life. One night, she's standing on a stepstool speaking to Marcellus when it breaks, causing her to injure her ankle. She's ordered by her doctor to stay off of it. Tova is forced to take work off. She also thinks about how she has no one to care for her in her old age and plenty of savings. She decides to fill out the application for Charter Village.

CAMERON GOES TO WASHINGTON

When Cameron gets to Washington, his budget airline loses his baggage, including some items he was planning to pawn for money. He's forced to take a loan from Aunt Jeanne, knowing it's coming out of fund she's been saving to go on a dream Alaskan cruise. The last payment for the cruise is in August. He uses the money she fronts him to buy a ramshackle camper van for $1,200 to serve as his home as well as transportation to Sowell Bay.

Cameron arrives in Sowell Bay and goes into the Shop-Way, where he meets Ethan. He comes out to find that he has a flat tire. Ethan offers to have a friend haul his camper to his place and allows him to park it in front of his home. Ethan also reaches out to Terry, the aquarium director, to get him a maintenance job at the aquarium. When Cameron asks for more hours, Terry offers to let Cameron serve as their temporary cleaner while Tova's ankle heals.

One night as Cameron is working, Tova comes in to check on Marcellus and sees that Marcellus is cowering in a corner while Cameron tries to use a broom handle to prod him back into his tank. Tova gets Marcellus back safely in his tank. Then, she starts giving Cameron pointers, both about cleaning and about befriending Marcellus. She asks Cameron to promise not to tell Terry about Marcellus's adventures out of his tank, since she knows Marcellus enjoys his freedom and Terry would not approve.

Tova continues to visit Marcellus, and she and Cameron get to know one another. While Cameron fails to make progress in locating Simon Brink, Cameron comes to enjoy working at the aquarium, and as the months pass he takes pride in holding down a job consistently for the first time. He's proud of himself when he manages to pay off his loan from Aunt Jeanne in full with interest. He also begins seeing a woman named Avery, who has a son, named Marco.

DISCOVERIES AND REVELATIONS

Marcellus is an octopus of many talents, and has a knack for identifying when two people are related. He knows that Tova and Cameron are related but he doesn't have any way of telling them.

Meanwhile, Tova starts to pack away her things in preparation for selling her house and moving to Charter Village. When she tells her friends in the Knit-Wits, they disapprove, saying that she shouldn't be living among strangers in the last years of her life. They also bring up her budding relationship with Ethan.

When one of the Knit-Wits, Mary Ann, decides to move in with her daughter, they throw a farewell lunch for Mary Ann. There, Tova chats with Adam, a man who once was friends with Erik. Adam recounts a memory of Erik and a young woman he was involved with around the time he disappeared. Tova soon learns that the woman's name was Daphne. She finds a "Daphne Cassmore" listed in Erik's senior year yearbook.

One night, Marcellus manages to get ahold of Cameron's ID and places it where Tova will find it. When this happens, Tova and Cameron realize that his mom Daphne was the girl that Erik had been seeing around the time he disappeared.

Ethan and Cameron have become good friends, and it dawns on Ethan that he's heard Cameron's last name before. There was a bad check posted on the wall of the Shop-Way when he bought it, and the name on the check was "Daphne Cassmore". When Ethan brings it with up to Cameron, they get in an argument because Cameron thinks Ethan is bad-mouthing his mother. Then, Cameron asks to be considered for a managerial job at the Shop-Way, but Ethan says he doesn't have the experience.

Cameron finally hears from Brinks Development and they say that Simon is finally available to meet with Cameron. He eagerly agrees to the meeting, though it means cancelling a date with Avery. When he goes, Simon denies being Cameron's father, saying that he and Daphne were best friends, but only ever friends.

When Cameron returns, he's in foul mood about the meeting with Simon, and Avery doesn't seem to be responding to him. Also, earlier that day, he asked Terry about making his position permanent, but Terry hasn't followed up. Tova tries to tell him that things have been hectic because a new octopus was brought in, but Cameron doesn't want to hear it. He chucks the class ring he found with his mother's belongings engraved with the letters EELS into the eel tank. He decides to immediately head back to California, even though Tova chastizes him for leaving without giving Terry notice, telling him that he's better than that.

THE END

Marcellus can feel his energy waning as his body is giving out from age, but he goes into the eel tank to fetch the class ring and presents it to Tova. Tova recognizes the engraved letters as her son Erik's initials immediately. Tova takes the dying Marcellus and takes him to the pier to return him to the sea in his final days or moments. On the jetty, Tova runs into Avery, who is looking for Cameron, and they clear up the misunderstanding.

Cameron drives for many hours, but he eventually comes to his senses about not wanting to leave everything a mess. When he returns, Tova tells him that the ring was Erik and she thinks that she's Cameron's grandmother.

A month later, Tova and Cameron are playing scrabble in her new condominimum, after she sold her house but decided not to move to Charter Bay. The book ends with Tova going to the pier and telling Erik and Marcellus that she misses them both.

For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.

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Book Review

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt was released back in 2022, but has managed to maintain its popularity even a year and a half after its initial release.

The popularity of this book feels somewhat unexpected, considering that many the chapters are narrated by an octopus named Marcellus living in an aquarium. But it’s a novel that has managed to tap into something and hold on.

In Remarkably Bright Creatures, Tova is an older woman who lives a quiet existence as a cleaner for the local aquarium in Sowell Bay, Washington. Her late husband, Will, passed many years ago, and her son Erik is presumed dead. Erik disappeared just before his 18th birthday, leaving behind a small boat that washed ashore with his prints on it.

Meanwhile, Cameron Cassmore is a bright, but unstable young man. He was abandoned by his addict mother when he was nine and left under the care of his older loving but quirky aunt, Jeanne. Down on his luck and broke, he gets a glimmer of hope when finds a clue about who his father might be.

Gentle and tender-hearted, Remarkably Bright Creatures is undeniably a feel good read, full of well-meaning though imperfect characters. It’s a book where you are likely to fall in love with and root for the whole cast, including the octopus. At the same time, it also probes at Tova’s feelings of loneliness and loss, and explores Cameron’s insecurities and frustrations.

I found this book to be rejuvenating. It’s a hopeful, sweet story that’s meant to wrap you up in its narrative like a warm blanket. Tone-wise, Remarkably Bright Creatures reminded me a lot of a slightly less saccharine version of Frederik Bachman’s A Man Called Ove.

It’s not the deepest or most realistic book out there (and I don’t think that it’s supposed to be), but I imagine that most people who choose to read this will find that easy to forgive and appreciate the good-hearted yarn that it succeeds in spinning.

Read it or Skip it?

Remarkably Bright Creatures is a quick read, but I would have been happy to spend more time with these characters, listening to this story.

If you’re looking for a feel-good, life-affirming read, this one is a pretty sure bet, and an easy book to recommend. I think this would be a wonderful book club pick if your group is in the mood for something light and bright.

See Remarkably Bright Creatures on Amazon.

Remarkably Bright Creatures Audiobook Review

Narrator: Marin Ireland & Michael Urie
Length: 11 hours 16 minutes

I thought the narrators were very well cast. Their voices match the characters pretty perfectly, and they both are clearly good at what they do. Very easy pleasant listening.

Hear a sample of the Remarkably Bright Creatures audiobook on Libro.fm.

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of Remarkably Bright Creatures



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