Book Club

Magpie Book Club: Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures.

By: Jen Shoop

Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures started on shaky ground for me: it opens with a great Pacific octopus narrating from his enclosure in an aquarium. Keep going, though, because the motif is not nearly as gimmicky as I anticipated, and the voice of Marcellus the octopus proves to be witty, dry, and entertaining. The book is ostensibly structured as a mystery in which two competing narratives converge to reveal a hidden truth, but it is, at heart, about coping with loss. In the novel, characters lose luggage, class rings, keys, Dala horses, Grateful Dead t-shirts, parents, sons, and tentacles, and undergo tremendous transformations as they seek resolution. They regrow limbs (Marcellus), hatch and carry out elaborate and expensive machinations to procure replacements (I’m think of Tova and the Grateful Dead tee), contort themselves through narrow apertures (Marcellus, again), and cultivate profound will and determination in order to keep moving forward (Cameron, Tova). Though a persistent motif of the book is loneliness, for which Marcellus’ tank at the aquarium might well serve as the insignia, almost none of these transformations happen in isolation. In fact, the “returns” we witness in the book are almost always at the hands of loving community members willing to step in and insist, as Janice does to Tova, “You are not a burden.” The message here is uplifting: though we often feel profoundly alone in grief, we are not, and we can find ways out of the drifts through community and the remarkable inborn agility and resilience we all carry within us. An octopus can camouflage itself in nearly any setting, and can also fit itself into a tiny soda bottle — which is to say, it can undergo extreme transformations in order to survive. So can we.

There were a few highly sticky vignettes in this book, ones that seem to stick to me like sap. The first is the image of a lonely Marcellus with his wise and seeing eye trapped in his tank. Aquarium visitors filter by him all day, leaving prints on his glass, but he is alone and longing for home waters. He is, truly, the spirit animal for both Tova and Cameron — perhaps all those who grieve — who are also isolated in their own homes, despite being surrounded by people and their “prints,” and who feel similarly “alone and longing for home waters.”

The second is the vision of Cameron in his movable habitat (an R.V. — his own kind of isolation tank), inching its way closer and closer to his true family. The R.V. itself bears all the markings (even the gross ones — urine-stained mattress!) of its former inhabitant, and he must learn to transform it into his own space, to care for it, to repair it. I find the vision of him in his own “enclosure” in Ethan’s driveway just as moving as (and parallel with) the vignette of Marcellus in his tank.

Which leads me to my final point: Van Pelt’s representation of physical space. Though she does not belabor the setting, we are always acutely aware of the rooms, tanks, shops, towns in which these people move — the ways they are trapped in them, the ways they escape them, the ways they transcend them. I thought this was a tremendous achievement on the part of the novelist, because she uses such a light hand, but I was always aware of the contours of Sowell Bay, its proximity to water, the layout of the aquarium. I even have a crisp vision of Tova’s home and Ethan’s living room with the peeling vinyl on the shelving. It made me think a lot about the spaces we inhabit, what it means to be trapped versus free, how we define “home.”

All around, a great summer reading book. Perfect for sitting on a porch during passing rain showers. It’s easy to read, but resonant.

Post Scripts.

+If you’re looking for something lighter and saucier, try this one. If you’re wanting something with more substance, look no further than this.

+Next up for me: The Chateau, a thriller by a Magpie reader (!!!), Jaclyn Goldis, which my friend Grace raved about. Description: A dream girls trip to a luxurious French chateau devolves into a deadly nightmare of secrets and lies in this “twisty, well-paced murder mystery that never fully lets go. Then I want to either read The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (strongly recommended by a few Magpies) or Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, which many of you cited in comments and via Instagram as the book that most recently gave you a bad reading hangover.

+Thoughts on grief.

+Worry dolls and endings.

Shopping Break.

+Has anyone shopped at the brand perfectwhitetee before? I’m intrigued by their collection of everyday cotton basics. Their tanks are their bestselling item, but I love the look of this reverse fleece shrunken sweatshirt and their LS tees, too.

+If you haven’t tried before, Christophe Robin’s hair scrub is incredible. It leaves your scalp feeling so clean and your hair at the roots feels “lifted” — springy, even?! It’s wild. I’d frankly forgotten about this for a few years but just re-ordered. Will be good after all the chlorine, sweat, sun, etc. You can order in a mini size if you want to test before buying the bigger volume.

+J. Crew’s Emilie jacket/sweater is back in new colors. I’m kind of digging the red?? But black and navy are so good, too. How’s a girl to choose?

+ZARA. What are you doing to me!? I want this dress as well as this skirt and top sitch.

+This nightgown is cute enough to wear as a pool cover-up/house dress.

+It’s sandal season! Been hearing good things about this foot mask for preventing cracked/dry skin!

+La Ligne nails it again.

+How cute is this embroidered tote?

+Been hearing a little commotion for Skims’ triangle bra. Has anyone tried it? I’m loathe to give up my cheap Amazon seamless ones but…could be good for certain necklines?

+I received an applique baby pillow like this for my son when he was born and it’s one of my most treasured things in his room! Great gift.

+Love these oyster swim trunks.

+The color of these cropped linen trousers is fantastic. Don’t underestimate brown! Would look great with white, taupe, black, navy!

+I’ve mentioned this many times, but I love this half-zip. It’s SO silky soft. It’s been restocked!

+How sweet is this frameable birth announcement?

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6 thoughts on “Magpie Book Club: Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures.

  1. I recently ordered a bunch of skims bras and was unimpressed/returned all – but you may feel differently! i have friends that rave about them *shrug* .. instead, i reach most for my true & co unwired bras in various styles, in case that’s helpful.

    1. Have to agree with this take! I have the Skims scoop bra in black & beige and they’re both firmly in the “close to laundry day” camp. Meanwhile my True & Co bras are my perennial go-tos (except for certain skimpier tanks, because I find that the front of the bra, near the armhole, comes up weirdly high/sticks out). But NOTHING is comfier! I actually impulse-purchased a few bandeau bras from Skims when I was at Nordstrom in NYC a couple of months ago, and I reallllly wish I had noticed that True & Co also makes bandeaus!

      Also, fwiw, I have found Skims to run a bit small.


      1. Thank you for this intel! After reading, I ordered myself one of the True & Co styles on sale at Nordstrom! TY!


  2. Three best books of the year for hangovers—-Demon Copperhead by Kingsolver, The Lincoln Highway by Toweles and Horse by Brooks.

    1. Hi Kitty! Thank you so much for sharing – these names keep bubbling up. Demon Copperhead is next in my queue!


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