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Jenna Bush Hager's May 2022 book pick is a novel about 'unexpected friendship'

"Not since ‘The Life of Pi’ have I found a book with such creativity and such a strong voice,” Jenna told TODAY.
/ Source: TODAY

After reading the multigenerational family saga “Memphis” by Tara M. Stringfellow in April, Jenna Bush Hager has picked a touching story about an unlikely friendship that is sure to put a smile your face while you read along in May.

This month’s Read With Jenna pick is “Remarkably Bright Creatures” by Shelby Van Pelt.

“This novel is filled with love, humor, joy and healing," Jenna Bush Hager told TODAY. It demonstrates the power and beauty of unexpected friendships. I can’t wait for this creative, feel-good story to surprise and delight the Read With Jenna book club this May.”

Van Pelt’s debut novel tells the story of Tova, a widowed night-shift janitor working at an aquarium in Washington. Tova had taken the job to stay busy, something she’s been trying to do since her 18-year-old son disappeared on the Puget Sound 30 years earlier.

While working, she forms an unexpected yet remarkable friendship with a giant pacific octopus named Marcellus. Marcellus is much smarter than he lets on. After he takes a liking to Tova, he helps her uncover the mystery behind the years-long disappearance of her son.

“Not since ‘The Life of Pi’ have I found a book with such creativity and such a strong voice,” Jenna said.

The author was first inspired to write the book after seeing a video on the internet of a Giant Pacific Octopus trying to get out of its enclosure at the Seattle Aquarium.

“It was just so fascinating to watch. I couldn't let go of the idea that there was a character in there,” Van Pelt said. “Sometime later, when I was in a writing workshop, I got a prompt to write from an unexpected point of view. That's when Marcellus kind of popped into my mind.”

Van Pelt also looked to close family for inspiration.

“The character Tova, who's the older woman who cleans at the aquarium, was loosely based on my grandmother who passed away a few years ago,” Van Pelt said. “She was an immigrant from Sweden. She loved to clean. She just kept herself busy to pass the time. She sort of had this stoic shell around her. She was very, very kind and warm, but there was always this kind of screen in front of her and I never really was able to break through it when she was alive. I think part of me, in writing the story, wanted to write a character where I could break through it a little bit and see what could happen if you crack that shell open.”

The debut novelist hopes readers will root for her imperfect characters.

“I would just want people to know that it is a very real book," Van Pelt said. "It does deal with some heavy stuff, but it's also meant to be a really fun book. I think if you can let go of the idea that an octopus is telling you a story, and have fun with it, hopefully, it will be an enjoyable read for everyone.”

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