Skip to main content

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

The Alchemist's Daughter

1. How do you feel about the way the novel and its characters deal with the issue of slavery? How does the situation of each character color his or her opinion of the slave trade? How do those opinions help define their characters? How would you describe Emilie's opinion of the slave trade? Does her point of view change during the course of the book?

2. At the time of their meeting and then marriage, how do you think Aislabie truly feels about Emilie? Is he in love? Does he have other motivations for wanting to marry her? How and why do these feelings change during the course of the book?

3. Why are the Gills so loyal to Selden, despite evidence that they have disagreed with their master and were, at the end of his life, blamed for Emilie's fall from grace?

4. Would you describe Emilie as a sentimental person? Considering the purely intellectual education she has received at her father's hands, how do you make sense of the sentimental attachment she has toward her mother's possessions?

5. Despite her intelligence, Emilie tends to miss or ignore many signs that point to Aislabie's true nature: his involvement in the slave trade; flaunting expensive new ornaments while claiming poverty; undermining his wife's wishes about the remodeling of Selden; refusing to consider the concerns of Selden's tenants. Why do you think it takes infidelity on such a blatant scale for her to see him for what he is? Are there other signs she may have missed?

6. Do you think Emilie will be a better landlord than her father was? Why or why not?

7. Did Emilie fail her father's parenting "experiment," as she supposes when she reads his notebooks? What outcome do you think would have satisfied him? Were his hopes realistic? Were they fair?

8. After the discovery of her mother's true identity, Emilie begins to regard men's attentions to herself in a new way. What do you make of this change?

9. Do you think that Sarah and Emilie could ever have been friends? Is there any action Emilie could have taken early in her marriage to gain Sarah's affection? What do you think their relationship might have been like if Emilie had invited Sarah to stay at Selden with her child?

10. Discuss the laboratory explosion. What do you think Emilie expected to happen? What did she hope to accomplish?

11. What do you think Aurelie's childhood will be like?

12. How do the discovery of Sarah's pregnancy and the aftermath of that discovery affect the power dynamic in the Aislabies' marriage?

13. What sort of relationship do you envision between Emilie and Shales after the novel's end?

The Alchemist's Daughter
by Katharine McMahon

  • Publication Date: October 24, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press
  • ISBN-10: 0307335852
  • ISBN-13: 9780307335852