When I decided to restart the blog, I couldn’t think of a better book to begin than a review for this gem. This was my favorite of my reads for 2022. It’s a debut novel from Shelby Van Pelt, and I certainly hope to see so much more from her in the future, because I need to regularly ugly cry at the end of a book to remember I am actually human.
Tova Sullivan lives a quiet life keeping her little house tidy and working as a night shift janitor at the Sowell Bay Aquarium. She doesn’t need a job, but she needs the distraction that staying busy gives her. Tova carries around the kind of sadness very few humans could ever understand, but when she meets Marcellus, the giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium, she doesn’t know just how much change he will bring to her life.
I loved Van Pelt’s development of character. She seamlessly crafted these perfectly flawed people in separate spheres of this delightful universe and brought them together in such a satisfying way. Marcellus the curmudgeonly octopus is what you get if you take Backman’s Ove and give him eight tentacles and nine super-charged brains. Definitely listen to this one, because Michael Urie stole the show with his narration of Marcellus. The rest is narrated by Marin Ireland, pretty much a legend in audiobook narration. There’s a whole host of other delightful and quirky characters who make up this novel, and each of them has a very important part to play.
All the characters are flawed, but none was quite as flawed as Cameron, the young man who moves from California to Sowell Bay in search of information about his past. Honestly, I had trouble viewing him as a man in his 30’s. He read like some deadbeat teenager. Sure, he had his reasons, and he was supposed to be presented as a stunted adult. I in no way am trying to say Van Pelt did anything wrong in the way she presented him. He was precisely as he was planned. That didn’t make him any less annoying, but I totally understand him and appreciate the complex human that he is.
Hands down, my favorite human character was Ethan, the colorful owner of the local food mart. Of course, I loved Tova dearly and was rooting for her to find her peace, but Ethan just brought a smile to my face every time he popped up. I thought he was the soul of this book, representative of the depth of goodness at the heart of a rugged and shaggy world that’s often judged by its rough exterior versus the more understated side full of warmth and humor. The prose of this novel is lovely, and it really lends so much more beauty to an already incredible setting in Sowell Bay, Washington, on Puget Sound. I’ve always wanted to visit that part of the country, and now I want to visit even more. Though there’s probably a risk of me hanging out at an aquarium trying to bond with an octopus, and I’d probably get kicked out.
Let me say this: I liked this book up until the very end. And then Van Pelt did something that changed the way I felt. She made me love it instead. She took three words she’d already presented us with and then she laid them back at our feet with a different context and it brought instantaneous clarity (and quite a few tears). I think it takes legitimate skill to write something that can put so much power into mere words, especially so few. I’m not going to explain that any further, because I don’t want to spoil too much, but when you read this you will know what I’m talking about. Suffice it to say, this book has one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve read in a long time.
Basically, this book has everything you could want. It’s highly emotional, possessing both that feel-good vibe that readers love and a deep complexity that examines how we humans process pain and loneliness. There’s a bit of mystery, though I feel like certain details are pretty obvious pretty fast. But the driving force of this novel is not mystery or intrigue, it’s love and forgiveness and friendship and all manner of gushy things. It does refrain, however, from verging over into too much sentimentality. It rides that fine line of perfection that acknowledges the harsh realities of life without neglecting that good things exist. In short, you should read this. Everyone needs Marcellus in their lives.
Published May 3, 2022 by Ecco. ISBN 0063204150. Runtime 11 hrs and 16 mins. Narrated by Marin Ireland and Michael Urie.