I was feeling a little blue facing the long Labor Day weekend, knowing I would be stuck on the couch resting a badly sprained ankle encased in a boot. The beautiful weather beckoned me to go for a hike, but I knew I had to stay inside.
Luckily, I had a couple library books to devour over the three days. Both were lovely stories about friendship and found families that raised my spirits and made the days go by quickly. At the library, we call these novels “uplit”, meaning literature that is uplifting and life-affirming, and which explore themes of family bonds and the human spirit.
In Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures, 70-year-old Tova Sullivan works at night cleaning the Sowell Bay Aquarium on Puget Sound. Tova enjoys staying busy because it helps her cope with the grief of losing her 18-year-old son 30 years ago and her husband more recently. She greets all the sea creatures whose tanks she shines, but she has a special fondness for Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus. They strike up a friendship, and Marcellus is determined to help Tova figure out why her son drowned so many years ago. Marcellus, who narrates some of the chapters, wants to help his human friend find happiness.
The friendship between Tova and Marcellus is heartwarming. It reminded me of the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher, about a man’s real friendship with a wild octopus in the Ocean off South Africa. We don’t have the Netflix film in the library yet, but we do have the book based on it, called Underwater Wild: My Octopus Teacher’s Extraordinary World by Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck.
The second novel I enjoyed was Other Birds by Sarah Addison Allen, her first book in seven years. Several troubled souls live in Dellawisp, a cobblestone building on a small coastal town called Mallow Island in South Carolina. The apartment complex is known for its unique turquoise birds that live only in the courtyard. The story is imbued with whimsy and Allen’s trademark magical realism, including ghosts who refuse to leave because they are looking out for their loved ones.
Zoey is a lonely 19-year-old trying to start a new life after her father and stepmother push her away. Mac is a James Beard award-winning chef grieving the woman who raised him and taught him how to cook. Charlotte is running away from her painful memories of growing up in a cult. And two older sisters each have their own apartments but never speak to each other because of grievances from their painful pasts. Zoey’s longing for friendship and community eventually draws some the neighbors out of their shells.
The sympathetic characters in these two bittersweet but moving stories face isolation and loneliness, but learn to reach out to others for help, companionship and family. Both authors use touches of magical realism that make their novels enchanting. Remarkably Bright Creatures and Other Birds are just the ticket for when you need to lift your spirits.