Center County Reads 2023 Book Selection Review

“Remarkably Bright Creatures” by Shelby Van Pelt is the 2023 selection of Center County Reads.

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Editor’s note: The following is a review of Center County Reads 2023 selection, “Extraordinarily Luminous Creatures.” For more information about Center County Reads, visit www.centrecountyreads.org.

Strolling through the library looking for a new book to read after a long day at work or school, your attention might focus on the brightly colored cover of an instant 2022 New York Times bestseller. Shelby Van Pelt’s gripping novel about small-town life, “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” captures the intersecting stories of an aging aquarist, a 30-year-old drifter, and a giant Pacific octopus as they journey towards self-understanding, companionship, and fulfillment.

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

The duo’s friendship becomes more complicated when Cameron Cassmore, a lost and aimless young man, enters the narrative. Broke, unemployed, and still reeling from childhood abandonment and the mystery of his parentage, Cameron abandons his old life and travels to Sowell Bay, Northern Washington, in search of answers and meaning in his life. While searching for her father, Cameron embraces new opportunities, friendships and romances.

The lives of Tova, Marcellus and Cameron intertwine as secrets are revealed and the characters discover something they never knew they had lost: family, friends and helpless company. Van Pelt integrates the perspectives of all three characters in alternating chapters, and these different viewpoints add to the novel’s suspense and intrigue.

Readers are fascinated by stories that contain an animal perspective and ‘Remarkably Bright Creatures’ deserves recognition in that literary category along with other recent novels such as ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ by W. Bruce Cameron. Though readers may have imprecise perceptions about animals and their intelligence at the outset 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 new interpretation of everyday human habits and experiences.

Marcello’s insights will make readers think about the complex relationship between freedom and dependence for both people and animals. The story highlights the significance of the company in navigating our ever-turbulent world. Death looms over various characters, prompting readers to ponder which components of life are most important to happiness and fulfillment.

As mysteries unravel, Marcello too becomes drawn into the investigation and makes it his dying mission to ensure appropriate resolutions for those he cares about. “If they don’t figure it out soon,” Marcello tells us, “everyone involved will be left with a… hole. As a general rule, I like holes. (…) But I don’t like the hole in his heart. He only has one, not three, like me. Tova’s heart. I will do everything I can to help fill it.

Although “goodbyes” are to be shared at the end of the novel, these partings do not lessen the impact of these characters on each other’s lives. As Tova says to Marcello: “We have to say goodbye, man. But I’m glad (Aquarium Manager) Terry saved you, because you saved me. Marcellus helps ease Tova’s grief over his son, gives Cameron answers about her family’s origins, and solidifies relationships that can’t be limited by age or species barriers.

While the novel contains its fair share of heartbreaking moments, the enjoyable story ultimately leaves readers optimistic for the future and assures them that despite life’s obstacles, happiness and fulfillment are still possible. Van Pelt addresses readers’ apprehensions about loneliness and aging, which allows the audience to experience positive emotions when reflecting on the story.

Van Pelt’s captivating novel prompts readers to reevaluate their views on intelligence and friendship in order to develop a refined view of the meaning of life and potential paths to happiness. The relationships that develop between the characters, especially in the midst of hardships, resonate with the audience and inspire them to feel optimistic about overcoming personal challenges in their own lives. Unexpected story developments enliven grieving characters and fill them with motivation to live wholly and without fear, doubts, and self-imposed obstacles. Perhaps Marcello says it best when he pronounces: “Humans. For the most part, you are boring and clumsy. But occasionally, you can be extraordinarily brilliant creatures. Through this memorable line, the title of “Remarkably Bright Creatures” comes full circle with an uplifting new meaning.

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

Upcoming Center County Reads events

Writing contest

The “Who Knows” writing competition offers a grand prize of $300 and additional awards for best short film, best poem, best non-fiction, and best work by a writer under the age of 18. Entries of 7,500 words or less must be submitted by March 1 and can be sent to [email protected]

Book discussions

January 25, 19-20, Schlow Library Zoom

February 15, 1-2 pm, Center County Library & Historical Museum

February 21, 5.30-6.30 pm, Schlow Library, Sun Room

March 8, 12:15-1pm, Center Region Active Adult Center, Nittany Mall (55+)

March 15, 6:30-7:30 pm, Center County Library & Historical Museum Zoom

March 20, 6-7 pm, Holt Memorial Library, register by phone at 814-342-1987

Round table “Giving voice to animals”.

Feb 15, 4-5pm, PSU Zoom, pre-registration required

“An Evening with Shelby Van Pelt”

March 14, 19-20, Schlow Library Zoom, pre-registration required

Story time

March 22, 10:30, Holt Memorial Library

For a full schedule and more details, visit centrecountyreads.org.

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