Thirty-somethings Lewis and Wren fall in love in a promising meet cute as he endures a bad date with someone else and she watches and eavesdrops upon it all unfolding. Idealistic Lewis is an aspiring actor and playwright turned teacher, and careful Wren, born to a teenage single mother, works in finance for stability and security. In due course, Wren and Lewis get married, and like any couple, they share and grow together while keeping some thoughts to themselves.
The “normal” trajectory of their relationship is interrupted by a startling diagnosis: A Carcharodon carcharias mutation has befallen Lewis, causing him to transform into a great white shark before their first anniversary. As her new husband morphs more and more rapidly, Wren buys scuba equipment and installs an aboveground pool. Lewis eats cans of tuna and boiled shrimp around the clock while still trying to teach and write for as long as he can.
The knowledge of their imminent separation forces decisions and conversations they didn’t plan to tackle so early in their marriage. As Shark Heart winds through both their pasts (Wren’s especially), poignant and meaningful moments abound as they search their memories and experiences to help them navigate an uncertain future.
Debut novelist Emily Habeck has crafted a story that is surprisingly moving, oddly heartwarming and deeply contemplative beyond its tragicomic premise. Habeck, who has a background in theater and theology, has a real dramatic flair, capturing her characters’ conflicts and buried longings in the face of undesired transformation. The “ever illusory margin between human and animal” is a key element of the novel’s world, one where people can become pregnant with birds or turn into zebras or Komodo dragons.
The short chapters and stylistic changes (some sections are formatted with only dialogue, while others are just a few sentences) do occasionally distract, but the depth of visceral emotion helps offset any affectation. Interspersed with Wren and Lewis’ story is the history of Wren’s mother, Angela, revealing much about who Wren is and why this parting with Lewis is so hard for her.
This story of love and connection—between mother and daughter, husband and wife, and friends that are like family—vividly explores both the fragility and tenacity of humanity. Shark Heart’s questions are universal: How do we let go of the ones we love? How do we move on after loss? And how do we—can we—open ourselves up to joy again? Like Wren, we survive, exist and begin again in the “terrifying and sublime journey” that is life.