I’ve never been in a book club.
By Rachel Cunningham
There is a certain allure to discussing the triumphs and shortcomings of a work of writing while sipping drinks and munching snacks. However, my reading pace is best described as “sluggish,” and I’m afraid I’d rarely come to a book club fully prepared. I’m also stubbornly attached to the genres I enjoy and being assigned a book outside of that bubble makes me apprehensive.
In my work as circulation manager for Manhattan Public Library, I often know nothing about a book, other than its frequency of checkout and cover design. Shelby Van Pelt’s “Remarkably Bright Creatures” has passed through my hands many times. The jacket’s bright colors were inviting and it even had a sticker stating it was part of the “Read With Jenna” book club. Though I “only enjoy gritty fiction,” after hearing a synopsis and rave review, my interest was piqued. I checked out the audiobook from Libby, a reading app.
“Remarkably Bright Creatures” follows Tova, a 70-year-old night shift custodian; Cameron, a wayward young adult; and Marcellus, a Giant Pacific Octopus (GPO) at the Sowell Bay Aquarium. If you’re dubious about casting a main character in an adult fiction book as an octopus, I can assure you that I was as well.
Marcellus is on day 1,299 of his captivity when the novel begins. Through his narration, we learn about the humans who wander past his tank during the day, and the woman, Tova, who methodically cleans every inch of the aquarium at night. Their lives are entwined when Tova discovers Marcellus in the staff break room, tentacles tangled in electrical cords on one of his secret nighttime jaunts. Tova disentangles his arms in time for Marcellus to hurry back to his tank. In this moment, a kinship forms.
Meanwhile in central California, Cameron is out of work and recently out of a relationship. He decides to dig into his absent mother’s past — or at least the box of things she’s left with his aunt. Among inexpensive jewelry, he discovers a high school photo of his mother with a man he’s never seen before.
The faded photo and class ring catalyze Cameron to begin a journey to Sowell Bay, Washington. Cameron hopes to find financial restitution with the father he’s never met. Things quickly fall apart upon his arrival in Sowell Bay and Cameron lands a temporary cleaning job at the aquarium, where he, too, discovers Marcellus mid-escape.
By this time, Marcellus has spent over 1,361 days at the aquarium, observing and learning about humans. As he interacts with Cameron and Tova, he begins to recall memories from his time before his captivity. Memories that may hold the solution to the questions Tova and Cameron are so desperate to answer.
But the Giant Pacific Octopus has a lifespan of four years – 1,460 days. Will Marcellus find a way to reveal the secrets to them before he’s out of time?
Through her novel, Shelby Van Pelt explores the innate desire to find meaningful connection with others. Although Tova has her knitting group and other friends, she feels adrift without her son and husband.
Cameron has struggled to maintain healthy relationships throughout his life, and Marcellus has spent most of his life in isolation. Yet through Marcellus’s wit and sharp observations of humans, readers can laugh at their own illogical behavior. He notes that “humans are the only species who subvert truth for their own entertainment. They call them jokes. Sometimes puns. Say one thing when you mean another.” Despite his snarky attitude, Marcellus becomes involved in Tova and Cameron’s lives in a way that will forever change their future.
As I mentioned earlier, this book was a “Read with Jenna” pick. Other popular book clubs include Oprah’s Book Club, Belletrist and Reese’s Book Club.
If you’re looking to make your own connections and start a book club, you can request a book discussion kit from select titles through our interlibrary loan department. Kits should be requested at least two weeks in advance. For more information, feel free to visit the Interlibrary Loan page on our website, or contact the library. Also, keep an eye out for information about our new book clubs for adults. You’ll find event information and more at mhklibrary.org.
Manhattan Public Library is a cornerstone of free and equal access to a world of ideas and information for the Manhattan, Kansas, community.
Rachel Cunningham is the circulation manager for Manhattan Public Library.