Remarkably Bright Creatures Book Club Questions & Discussion Guide

This is what happens when you pair a stubborn, grieving elderly woman with an escape artist of a giant octopus. Of course they become friends. And in the process you and your book club are treated to a full 360′ view into both of their lives, including long lost relatives, caring friends and some secrets of the sea.

Remarkably Bright Creatures covers themes like grief and loss, the pain of confinement, learning to take responsibility and also learning to accept help. It pairs a traditional narrative with supremely insightful observations from our octopus. There’s so much to talk about with this book and our Remarkably Bright Creatures book club questions will help you get started.

In addition to 10 question prompts, this discussion guide for Remarkably Bright Creatures also houses a synopsis, some selected reviews (which you can compare to your own opinions about the book) and some related reads to fuel your next club pick.

Remarkably Bright Creatures book club questions, with book cover and bookshelves in background.

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Remarkably Bright Creatures Synopsis

Remarkably Bright Creatures, Shelby Van Pelt

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.

Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn’t dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors—until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.

Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova’s son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it’s too late. 

Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel is a gentle reminder that sometimes taking a hard look at the past can help uncover a future that once felt impossible.

10 Remarkably Bright Creatures Book Club Questions

These questions have been tailored to this book’s specific reading experience, but if you want more ideas, we also have an article with 101 generic book club questions.

  1. The book uses a chapter device which toggles between a diary-style look into Marcellus’ confinement and a broader, traditionally linear narrative. Did the format work for you?
  2. “Like a tawny snake, one of his arms slithers toward her. In seconds, it winds around her forearm, then twists around her elbow and bicep like a maypole ribbon.”

    This rather descriptive statement is typical of the book’s writing style. Did you like the writing?
  3. According to Webster, a prisoner is “a person deprived of liberty and kept under involuntary restraint, confinement, or custody” and an escape artist is “someone (such as a performer or criminal) unusually adept at escaping from confinement”.

    Which do you think better describes Marcellus?
  4. Out of the tank for more than 18 minutes and Marcellus begins to suffer The Consequences. What sort of time-based Consequences do you experience in your own life?
  5. As Tova goes to the beach that she used to visit with her husband– “Now, Tova comes here to be alone with her thoughts, when she needs a break from being alone in her house. When even the television can’t punch through the unbearable quiet.”

    There is a thread of loneliness throughout the book. Putting yourself in her shoes, how would you feel?
  6. “Such are the secrets the sea holds. What I would not give to explore them again. If I could go back in time, I would collect all of it—the sneaker sole, the shoelace, the buttons, and the twin key. I would give it all to her. I am sorry for her loss. Returning this key is the least I can do.”

    What a gut punch. How does this quote by Marcellus encapsulate his relationship with Tova?
  7. “But the former cleaning woman and her replacement. They walk alike.”, observes Marcellus. And with that, 50% into the book, we get a clue into Cameron’s circumstance and his place in the story. Did you see that coming?
  8. At the end of the book, there is a collision of coincidences that tie up the relationship between Cameron and Tova. Was plausible? Is it the resolution that you were hoping for?
  9. Some negative reviews of the book focused on Cameron and his lack of maturity. What did you think of him and how important is he to the narrative?
  10. The book starts by describing octopuses as remarkably bright creatures, but at the end, Marcellus says, “Humans. For the most part, you are dull and blundering. But occasionally, you can be remarkably bright creatures.”

    In your opinion which creature characters in this book were brighter? Which were duller?
  11. BONUS QUESTION: Marcellus asks “Why can humans not use their millions of words to simply tell one another what they desire?” Why indeed?

Selected Reviews for Remarkably Bright Creatures

“The author’s portrayal of a close-knit small-town community and sensitive depiction of issues such as loss, grief, loneliness and aging will touch your heart. Though the plot is somewhat predictable, the story is very well told and nowhere in the narrative do you lose interest or experience boredom.”

“It’s me not you, according to all of Goodreads. Marcellus charmed me but the humans lost me.”

“I finished this book with a bittersweet feeling and a smile. How important is that? For me it’s priceless. How rare was that for this reader? Pretty darn rare. Maybe I’ve been reading the wrong books.”

“Cameron’s character was just the regular annoying, whiny kind of loser who blames everybody else for his “hard” life. We are constantly reminded how smart he is and yet the only way his smarts present themselves is through some random trivia. A 30 year old man who was raised by an aunt who made sure he had a roof over his head, rather than just being thrown into the system, who still blames his mother for all of his life choices and mistakes, is not someone I can feel sorry for.”


Use our guide to find dozens of book ideas for your group.

3 Books Like Remarkably Bright Creatures

This book was a Read with Jenna book club pick and she really nailed it. If you would like to read more of her suggestions, we have a complete Read with Jenna list with descriptions and ratings. For another look at the complex lives of older women, your club could read Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows.

If you want to learn more about cephalopods, here’s a list of books about octopuses.

The Guncle, Steven Rowley

Patrick is the Guncle, which is to say that he’s the loving (and also gay) uncle to his niece Maisie, and nephew, Grant. When their mother dies and their father is temporarily unable to take care of them, the kids suddenly find themselves in Patrick’s care.

For his part, Patrick wants to do right by the kids, but his Palm Springs lifestyle is going to need an adjustment. He’s been hiding out for years, reeling from the loss of his own love. So, how can he help the kids with their grief when he hasn’t moved on from his own?

This book has all the feels and is a good comp those those who liked the themes of love and loss in Remarkably Bright Creatures.

The Tusk That Did the Damage, by Tania James

If you want more complicated, intelligent, sentient animals… this is your next read.

The storyline of this book is so emblematic of the challenges that face elephants, who need space to roam…and a modern world wanting that space for its own purposes. While there are plenty of humans populating this book, the lead protagonist (and antagonist) is The Gravedigger.

He was orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor and exhibition. He breaks out of his bonds and begins wreaking havoc over the countryside, ultimately interacting with a reluctant poacher and an American film-maker. The book touches on themes of conservation, corruption and western hubris. The most astonishing thing about the book is that The Gravedigger is a fully fledged character with something to say about his circumstances.

And if you love elephants, we have a whole book list featuring elephants.

Breaking out of Bedlam, Leslie Larson

If you are tired of media depictions featuring kindly elderly women in cardigans, and want more nuance and edge, then you are going to love Cora.

She’s 82 and she doesn’t want to take crap from anyone. But her kids conspired to consign her to an assisted living center and she’s really pissed about it. Her later years aren’t all snoozes and bingo. Cora has to come to terms with her changing circumstances while also reconciling some deep secrets.

As a form of anger therapy, she starts a journal and in it she reveals aspects of her life that had been long buried.

The book is funny and touching and boy, does Cora have a mouth on her!

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