51 pages 1 hour read

Shelby Van Pelt

Remarkably Bright Creatures

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Remarkably Bright Creatures (2022) is American author Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel. It was published to critical acclaim and deals with themes of grief, family, and freedom. Van Pelt was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and uses the unique ecosystem of the area as a setting for the book, which highlights a sense of community and deep connection with the sea. This study guide references the hardcover edition of the novel from Bloomsbury Publishing.

Content Warning: This novel prominently concerns a death by suicide.

Plot Summary

Tova Sullivan is the elderly cleaning woman for the Sowell Bay Aquarium. She enjoys conversing with the aquarium’s octopus, Marcellus—an unusually intelligent creature who speaks directly to the reader about his captive circumstances. Marcellus has learned how to escape from his enclosure and travels through the aquarium looking for snacks. On one occasion, Tova finds him tangled in knotted cables in the director’s office. She helps free him, and Marcellus recognizes that without Tova, he would have died. The two begin an unlikely friendship.

Each week, Tova meets with her friends in a seniors’ social club they call the “Knit-Wits.” The other women express concern over Tova’s job. She feels disconnected from them because they all have husbands, children, and grandchildren while Tova is alone; she lost her son in a boating accident when he was 18 and her husband to cancer some years ago. Her son Erik’s death was ruled a suicide, but Tova never believed it. When she arrives home from meeting the Knit-Wits, she receives a message telling her that her estranged brother Lars has died.

Meanwhile, Cameron Cassmore lives in Modesto with his girlfriend Katie. Because he’s unable to hold down a job and lies to her when he gets fired, Katie throws him out. Cameron goes to stay with his childhood friends Elizabeth and Brad and decides to seek out his estranged father. A photo of his mother and a Sowell Bay class ring convince him that his absent father is Seattle real estate developer Simon Brinks. Cameron becomes convinced that if he can find him, Simon will have to pay for missed child support and solve all Cameron’s problems.

In Sowell Bay, Tova is approached by the attorney for Lars’s estate. She needs to go to the retirement home where he lived out his life, Charter Village, to arrange his affairs. Tova gets a ride from Ethan Mack, an acquaintance who owns the local grocery store and who has a crush on Tova. They visit Charter Village together and look around the facilities. Tova takes an application form. Later at work, Tova stands on a step stool to clean the octopus tank and falls, hurting her ankle. She’s instructed by the doctor to stay off her feet for six weeks.

Cameron arrives in Seattle and, after purchasing a used camper van to sleep in, drives to Sowell Bay where Simon lives. He meets Ethan at his grocery store and is warmly welcomed. Ethan helps Cameron get settled, giving him a place to park his van and helping him find a maintenance job at the local aquarium. Cameron becomes Tova’s temporary cleaning replacement. He continues searching for Simon and becomes involved with a local woman named Avery. Tova, fearing the consequences of growing old and vulnerable alone, decides to sell her home and move to Charter Village. As she trains Cameron in her methods, Marcellus begins to understand that Tova and Cameron must be genetically related. Tova learns that Erik had a girlfriend before he died.

As Tova prepares for her move, Marcellus plots ways to show Tova and Cameron the truth. He steals Cameron’s driver’s license and leaves it where Tova can find it, but that only shows her that Cameron’s mother and Erik knew each other. Tova and Ethan have dinner together, but their evening is ruined when Tova accidentally destroys Ethan’s prized concert T-shirt. Later, she tracks down a replacement to make up for her mistake. Cameron secures a meeting with Simon and finally confronts him, only to learn that he’s not his father after all. Angry and humiliated, Cameron leaves Sowell Bay, throwing his father’s class ring away. Marcellus manages to retrieve it for Tova, who realizes the ring belonged to her son. However, the task of getting the ring back nearly kills him. Tova helps Marcellus into a mop bucket and returns him to the ocean. She decides to stay in Sowell Bay. Avery tells Tova about a woman she once stopped from dying by suicide—Cameron’s mother. From Avery’s explanation of the woman’s ramblings, Tova understands that her son’s death was an accident after all.

Cameron swallows his pride and returns. Tova tells him the truth—that Erik was his father—and Cameron stays to build a life with Tova, Ethan, and Avery.