One of our recent Star Books, Remarkably Bright Creatures blew us away with its utterly unique concept, emotional depths and huge, huge, heart. Who would’ve thought a debut novel about a captive super-intelligent giant Pacific octopus could have so much impact, and hold so many truths about the human condition? Writer Shelby Van Pelt certainly saw the magical scope of this idea, and realised it with tremendous power. What a story!
As for the story, it’s centred on a woman called Tova, “Sowell Bay Aquarium’s oldest employee”, an unforgettable, adorable woman who’s nearing retirement. As she cleans the aquarium each night after the last visitors have left, Tova is drawn to the resident octopus, whom she names Marcellus. The only person to notice Marcellus’ needs, desire for freedom, and intelligence, Marcellus in turn observes truths about Tova, and goes to great eight-legged lengths to help Tova see them for herself.
Given its unique set-up and big themes — loss, loneliness, community and the cycles of life — we can’t recommend Remarkably Bright Creatures more highly for book groups, so read on for some questions to kick-start your discussions.
1. “Humans. For the most part, you are dull and blundering. But occasionally, you can be remarkably bright creatures.” Do you agree with Marcellus’ assessment of humans? Is this a good title for the novel?
2. “My name is Marcellus, but most humans do not call me that. Typically, they call me that guy. For example: Look at that guy—there he is—you can just see his tentacles behind the rock. I am a giant Pacific octopus. I know this from the plaque on the wall beside my enclosure. I know what you are thinking. Yes, I can read. I can do many things you would not expect.”
How did you respond to the start of the novel? Did it turn out to be what you’d expected after reading the opening segment? What genre were you expecting? How would you define its genre?
3. Discuss the style of Marcellus’ narrative.
4. Early on, Marcellus remarks, “How predictable you humans are!” Do you agree? Is this opinion borne out by the novel?
5. “What is she doing here, telling her life story to this strange creature?” What is Tova doing? Why does she share her life story with an octopus?
6. “You would do well to believe me when I tell you this: the young male who has recently taken over sanitation duties is a direct descendant of the cleaning woman with the injured foot.” Did you believe Marcellus about this?
7. What does the novel reveal about aging, and loneliness?
8. Did Remarkably Bright Creatures elicit an emotional response?
9. What did you think of the ending? Would you recommend Remarkably Bright Creatures to your book-reading nearest and dearest?