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In ‘Remarkably Bright Creatures,’ an octopus tells a feel-good story

5 min

Humans love a good, old-fashioned morality tale told from the perspective of an animal. “Watership Down,” “Animal Farm,” “The One and Only Ivan”: These beloved books, and so many others like them, take life’s toughest challenges — death, belonging, fear, loneliness — and make them a little easier to swallow.

Joining the menagerie is Shelby Van Pelt’s “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” an ultimately feel-good but deceptively sensitive debut about what it feels like to have love taken from you, only to find it again in the most unexpected places. The best part? It’s narrated by Marcellus McSquiddles, a giant Pacific octopus who cannot only think and feel as humans do but also pick locks, squeeze out of his tank at the aquarium to go on late-night snack runs and serve as the town’s secret matchmaker.

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“Remarkably Bright” is framed as a mystery, relayed in two storylines that eventually converge. The first stars set-in-her-ways Tova Sullivan, who, at 70 and recently widowed, likes things just so. When she’s not lunching and gossiping with three longtime girlfriends who affectionally call themselves the Knit-Wits, she’s volunteering as a night janitor at Puget Sound’s Sowell Bay Aquarium and conversing with Marcellus as she putters about cleaning.

For Tova, staying busy is the key to a content life and a quiet mind — a respite after too many years spent obsessing over what happened to her 18-year-old golden-boy son, Erik, who was found at the bottom of a lake about 30 years ago and whose death she believes was wrongly ruled a suicide.

The second narrative involves down-on-his-luck Cameron, a 30-year-old garage rocker and odd-jobber whose deadbeat mother left him with his aunt in a California trailer park when he was 9 and never returned. After too many failed relationships and lost jobs, he’s headed up to Sowell Bay on a whim to search for his long-lost father and shake him down for overdue child support.

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Astute readers might catch a whiff of where this is going. But that won’t detract from the story’s effect. Instead, putting the plot aside frees readers to focus on some of the book’s more compelling elements — mainly, its characters.

Cameron’s journey — his reunion with the man he thinks is his father; his burgeoning romance with Avery, a hot-mama surf-shop owner in Sowell Bay; and his bumbling efforts to man up to adulthood after getting a gig at the aquarium — while engaging to read, is nothing special.

What makes the book so memorable and tender is Van Pelt’s depiction of Tova and her insistence on aging like a responsible person should. Much like Kent Haruf’s practically minded Addie Moore in “Our Souls at Night” or a much less insufferable version of Elizabeth Strout’s straight-shooting Olive Kitteridge, Tova won’t have anyone fussing over her — especially jolly old Ethan, the Shop-Way grocery store owner who’s been sweet on her for ages.

Instead, Tova is set on getting rid of her belongings, selling the house her father built and checking herself into a nursing home, despite everyone’s objections: “I am not like you and Mary Ann and Barbara,” she says to the Knit-Wits in a particularly moving scene. “I don’t have children who will come stay with me when I’ve had a fall. I don’t have grandchildren who will stop over to unclog my drain or make sure I’m taking my pills. And I won’t put that burden on my friends and neighbors.” (Van Pelt writes in the acknowledgments that Tova is based very loosely on her Grandma Anna; her affection for this “unruffled” and “stoic Swede” shines through on every page.)

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Then, of course, there’s the matter of mischievous Marcellus, whom Van Pelt deftly uses to tie the book’s threads together while throwing in a few octopus facts for good measure. On Day 1,349 of his captivity, for example, Marcellus shares a sentiment even the most curmudgeonly of humans can rally behind: “As a general rule, I like holes. A hole at the top of my tank gives me freedom. 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.”

“Remarkably Bright Creatures” could be described as corny by some or far-fetched by others. But to those people I say: pish posh. After all, octopuses adapt to their environment by changing the color and texture of their skin. They can open jars and fit inside beer bottles. Some can even recognize and choose to befriend individuals outside their species, including humans. Why shouldn’t an especially wily one crack a decades-old cold case and bring people together while he’s at it?

Alexis Burling is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle and Chicago Tribune, among other publications.

Remarkably Bright Creatures

By Shelby Van Pelt

Ecco. 368 pp. $27.99

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