Book Review 

Remarkably Bright Creatures: From Loneliness to Companionship, A Novel for All Ages

Walking through the library in search of a new book to read after a long day of work or school, your attention may focus on the brightly colored cover of an instant 2022 New York Times bestseller. Shelby Van Pelt’s engaging novel of small-town life, Remarkably Bright Creatures, captures the intersecting stories of an elderly aquarium worker, a thirty-year-old drifter, and a giant Pacific octopus as they journey toward self-understanding, companionship, and fulfillment. 

As the story unfolds, unlikely alliances emerge among these three characters—breaking age gaps, personal barriers, and species divides. The wholesome novel begins with a lonely aquarium worker, Tova Sullivan, who mechanically advances through her day, still grieving her only son who died mysteriously decades prior. Unwilling to sacrifice her independence, Tova finds companionship with Marcellus McSquiddles, the bright orange octopus, who faces challenges of his own: the struggle of captivity and a lack of freedom.

The duo’s friendship becomes more complicated when Cameron Cassmore, a lost and purposeless young man, enters the narrative. Broke, unemployed, and still reeling from childhood abandonment and the mystery of his parentage, Cameron deserts his old life and travels to Sowell Bay in northern Washington seeking answers and meaning in life. As he searches for his father, Cameron embraces new opportunities, friendships, and romances. 

The lives of Tova, Marcellus, and Cameron interlace as secrets are revealed, and the characters discover something they didn’t know they were missing: family, friends, and unguarded companionship. Van Pelt integrates all three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, and these varying points-of-view enhance the suspense and intrigue of the novel. 

Readers remain captivated by stories that contain an animal perspective, and Remarkably Bright Creatures deserves recognition in that literary category alongside other recent novels like W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose. Although readers may hold inaccurate perceptions about animals and their intelligence at the beginning of Van Pelt’s novel, Marcellus’s insightful and contemplative orations shatter expectations. Hearing Marcellus share his unique frame of reference highlights the creature’s mental capacity and offers a fresh take on everyday human habits and experiences. 

Marcellus’s insights will make readers consider the complex relationship of freedom to dependency for people and animals alike. The story highlights the significance of companionship in navigating our ever-turbulent world. Death looms over various characters, prompting readers to reflect on what components of life are most important for happiness and satisfaction.

As the mysteries unfold, even Marcellus becomes involved in the sleuthing and makes it his dying mission to ensure appropriate resolutions for those he’s come to care about. “If they do not figure it out soon,” Marcellus tells us, “everyone involved will be left with a—hole. As a general rule, I like holes. [...] But I do not like the hole in her heart. She only has one, not three, like me. Tova’s heart. I will do everything I can to help her fill it.”  

Though “goodbyes” must be shared by novel’s end, these partings do not diminish the impact of these characters on each other’s lives. As Tova tells Marcellus, “We must say goodbye, friend. But I’m glad [aquarium director] Terry saved you, because you saved me.” Marcellus helps to sooth Tova’s grief for her son, gives Cameron answers about his family origins, and solidifies relationships that cannot be confined by barriers of age or species. 

Although the novel contains its fair share of tear-jerking moments, the feel-good story ultimately leaves readers optimistic for the future and assures them that, despite life’s roadblocks, happiness and fulfillment are still possible. Van Pelt resolves readers’ apprehensions about loneliness and aging, which allows audiences to feel positive emotions when they reflect on the story.

Van Pelt’s endearing novel provokes readers to reevaluate their views about intelligence and friendship in order to develop a refined outlook on the meaning of life and the potential paths to happiness. The relationships that develop between characters, especially in the midst of hardships, resonate with audiences and inspire them to feel optimistic about overcoming personal challenges in their own lives. Unexpected developments in the story enliven sorrowful characters and fill them with motivation to live wholly and without fear, doubts, and self-imposed obstacles. Marcellus perhaps says it best when he pronounces, “Humans. For the most part, you are dull and blundering. But occasionally, you can be remarkably bright creatures.” Through this memorable line, the title of Remarkably Bright Creatures comes full circle with a new uplifting meaning. 

Julia Mertes is a Penn State student and an intern for the Center for American Literary Studies.