“There was a girl.”

Books on Tap book club met on Thursday, May 4 at Beer Run to discuss Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. Described as “incredibly easy to read” and “a book I’d give as a gift to just about anyone,” we reached a near-consensus that the book was well-liked. The book’s first page opens with an age-old likability tool – a story told from an animal’s point of view. Even more, this animal is wise, darkly humorous, surprisingly tender and caring, and ultimately saves the day. Marcellus the octopus is a remarkably bright creature. With his help, the humans in this story become remarkable and bright as well. 

Reminiscent of a Louise Penny cozy mystery, complete with small town vibes, eccentric characters, a bit of light peril, but no graphic violence or adult themes, Remarkably Bright Creatures even features a case gone cold – what happened to Tova’s eighteen-year-old son thirty years ago that night on the water? In lieu of a detective, we have Marcellus, and while we won’t spoil the ending, suffice to say that this cast of characters, each one with something missing, seemed to find their missing piece. 

We talked extensively about aging, because Tova is older, widowed, considers moving into an upscale retirement facility, and while she is a workhorse, she also suffers from a few minor injuries, a popping back, and other ailments. We laughed quite a bit about how young authors mistakenly cast their older characters in a fragile light – shuffling to get around, bones crunching, and hard of hearing; it’s especially troubling when those decrepit-sounding folks are supposed to be even younger than we are! Moving our conversation into a societal context, we considered how this story fits into a growing narrative of older individuals facing the prospect (and sometimes, question, and sometimes, anxiety) of aging. Most pressing: who will take care of me? Will I be safe? For many, including Tova, the idea of a homespun safety net – relying on close friends, or even children – feels like an imposition. Where do we go from there? We see the first glimpse of how Tova may navigate that question in the future, and it may be one of the more subtle ways Tova is able to grow before the novel’s end. 

Through the fascinating question of, “what will these characters be doing in five years?” we were also able to discuss our opinions of Cameron, voted “the novel’s most improved.” At first deemed an unbelievably naive and immature thirty-year-old, we were able to detect moments of his virtuous character and areas of growth. Some examples: his dedication to paying back a loan to his aunt, his acceptance of his girlfriend’s teenaged child, his work ethic at the aquarium, and his evolving attitude toward his two best friends growing up and having a child together. 

This novel features an octopus escaping its enclosure, snacking on creatures in other tanks, creating collections, and (accurately) judging human behavior. As a group, we read The Soul of an Octopus last year, and agreed it is an important precursor to Remarkably Bright Creatures. Without the foundational knowledge of how smart octopuses really are, one might be tempted to view Marcellus’ antics as cartoonish and absurd. In truth, octopuses are physical and mental wonders. Read both books, and you’ll have an octopus-filled summer! They’re perfect beach reads, too.

This novel worked so well, for so many people (even those who had not read The Soul of an Octopus), because it is hard to deny the lovability of an anthropomorphic character. When this book club read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, the Great Dane, Apollo, was both “too much and not enough.” While not anthropomorphic, Apollo was a commanding presence on the page, and the human-animal relationship captivated many of our readers. While dogs are commonplace, Great Danes are nearly octopus-level novelty, and Apollo’s wacky presentation kept us reading. Similarly, in this book, told in the increasingly-popular style of multiple voices/perspectives, it was Marcellus, speaking truths at times as deep-dark and icy-cold as the ocean, that kept us (quickly) turning pages. Today, be inspired by Marcellus: “Why can humans not use their millions of words to simply tell one another what they desire?”

Books mentioned during the meeting:

Inky’s Amazing Escape: How A Very Smart Octopus Found His Way Home by Sy Montgomery (the author of The Soul of an Octopus)

Still Life by Louise Penny

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

Other books to explore:

The Lonely Hearts Book Club by Lucy Gilmore

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons

Harry’s Trees by Jon Cohen 

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout 

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams 

Image of Dala Horses of Sweden (Tova collected them):

Upcoming titles:

(for more information, email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org) 

June 1 – Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

July 6 – The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

August 3 – The Gifted School by Bruce W. Holsinger

September 7 – Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

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