An octopus, a widow, and a decades-long missing-person case

An octopus befriends a widow and sets out to solve the mystery of her son’s disappearance in the feel-good novel “Remarkably Bright Creatures.” 

"Remarkably Bright Creatures," by Shelby Van Pelt, Ecco, 368 pp.

A surprise source of joy during the first year of the pandemic was a gorgeously filmed underwater documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a filmmaker who forges a relationship with an octopus in the cold waters of a South African kelp forest. If viewers learned anything, it is that octopuses are smart and sentient. 

In Shelby Van Pelt’s feel-good first novel, “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” the titular clever critter is a giant Pacific octopus at the fictional Sowell Bay Aquarium in Washington state. Dubbed Marcellus by the aquarium owner’s daughter, this cephalopod, who was taken into captivity as a juvenile after being badly wounded by a wolf eel, is approaching the end of his four-year lifespan. He isn’t happy about his captivity or his impending demise. But his waning months are brightened when he strikes up a friendship with the night cleaner, a recently widowed woman in her 70s.  

Tiny yet forceful, Swedish-born Tova Lindgren Sullivan is determinedly self-sufficient. She takes the janitorial job not because she needs the money, but because she’s compulsively clean and needs purposeful activity.  

Tova, like several characters in “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” is marked by loss and lingering grief. She has never gotten over the sudden death of her only child, Erik, who disappeared mysteriously in the Puget Sound one night in the spring of his senior year in high school 30 years ago. Foul play was ruled out, but Tova has never bought the explanation of suicide for her happy son on the cusp of college and a bright future. The lack of closure gnaws at her through the decades, as does the lack of heirs. She feels Erik’s absence especially sharply when her longtime klatsch of friends – the Knit-Wits – talk about their offspring. A fall at the aquarium heightens Tova’s concerns about aging alone in the beautiful three-level house her father built when she was 8.

The octopus recognizes Tova’s sadness and what he calls “the hole in her heart.” After she rescues him one night after finding him entangled in some wires on one of his frequent escapes, he resolves to help solve the mystery of her son’s disappearance. With his multiple arms, the octopus is good at seizing clues, both literally and figuratively. He comes to realize that a key he picked up at the bottom of the bay before he was captured, part of a collection of treasures he hoards behind the rock in his tank, may help unlock this case. Van Pelt’s sharp-eyed invertebrate has an unbelievable (but wonderful) ability to grasp connections that others fail to see. 

Marcellus’ wry, curmudgeonly point of view is conveyed in short journal-like remarks interspersed throughout this otherwise third person narrative. He holds himself in high esteem and does not think much of most humans. “My neurons number half a billion,” he comments. “On occasion, I have wondered whether I might have more intelligence in a single tentacle than a human does in its entire skull.” On day 1,306 of his captivity, he boasts, “I am very good at keeping secrets. You might say I have no choice. Whom might I tell? My options are scant.” He wonders why humans don’t explode with all the secrets they carry. “It seems to be a hallmark of the human species: abysmal communication skills,” he observes.  

Van Pelt’s multi-limbed tale features several other characters whose lives are colored by loss. All of them turn out to be essentially kind, sympathetic people, though it takes us a while to care about Cameron Cassmore, a 30-year-old ne’er-do-well from Modesto, California, whose main talent seems to be messing up. He is grateful to his Aunt Jeanne, who raised him after his drug-addicted single mother abandoned him when he was 9. Cameron wants to make his aunt proud, but, although clearly smart, he can’t stop sabotaging himself – and blaming it on his mother. Desperate to make good, he borrows money to head north to Sowell Bay in pursuit of a rich man he believes might be his father. 

Other characters include a Scottish-born grocery store owner who is gossip-prone but well meaning. He is smitten with Tova, but she has no intention of dating after the loss of her husband of 48 years. There’s also a young single mother who, unlike Cameron’s mother, has managed not only to provide a secure upbringing for her son, but also to run a successful business selling paddleboards.

“Remarkably Bright Creatures’’ requires a willingness to throw disbelief overboard. The various narrative strands entwine somewhat improbably, though not as improbably as a literate octopus’ skill at detective work. But if you can swim with it, Van Pelt has spawned a heartwarming tale about the importance of reaching out with open arms to make meaningful connections. I’m a sucker for happy endings, and this one, which brings a group of lonely outsiders into the equivalent of a big, communal hug, has considerable charm.

Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for the Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, and NPR.

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