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About The Book

A New York Times Editors’ Choice
A USA TODAY Bestseller
A Booklist Editor’s Choice
A Goodreads Choice Award Nominee

A “beautifully written” (Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of All the Light We Cannot See) debut novel of marriage, motherhood, metamorphosis, and letting go, this intergenerational love story begins with newlyweds Wren and her husband, Lewis—a man who, over the course of nine months, transforms into a great white shark.

For Lewis and Wren, their first year of marriage is also their last. A few weeks after their wedding, Lewis receives a rare diagnosis. He will retain most of his consciousness, memories, and intellect, but his physical body will gradually turn into a great white shark. As Lewis develops the features and impulses of one of the most predatory creatures in the ocean, his complicated artist’s heart struggles to make peace with his unfulfilled dreams.

At first, Wren internally resists her husband’s fate. Is there a way for them to be together after Lewis changes? Then, a glimpse of Lewis’s developing carnivorous nature activates long-repressed memories for Wren, whose story vacillates between her childhood living on a houseboat in Oklahoma, her time with her college ex-girlfriend, and her unusual friendship with a woman pregnant with twin birds. Woven throughout this “heart-wringing” (Adam Roberts, internationally bestselling author of Salt) novel is the story of Wren’s mother, Angela, who becomes pregnant with Wren at fifteen in an abusive relationship amidst her parents’ crumbling marriage. In the present, all of Wren’s grief eventually collides, and she is forced to make an impossible choice.

A sweeping love story that is at once lyrical and funny, airy and visceral, Shark Heart is an unforgettable, gorgeous novel about life’s perennial questions, the fragility of memories, finding joy amidst grief, and creating a meaningful life. This daring debut marks the arrival of a wildly talented new writer abounding with originality, humor, and heart.

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions:

1. Why do you think the author chose to give Lewis a fictional condition instead of a real one?

2. Wren and Lewis are quite different from each other and yet, love each other deeply. Have you ever been close to someone who sees the world differently? What are the gifts and challenges of these types of relationships?

3. As Lewis gradually becomes a great white shark, how do his personality changes strain his work and marriage? Beyond the world of the book, how do the ways people naturally change over time challenge or enhance relationships?

4. At Lewis’s “send off,” the partygoers “discovered the same private truth: Lewis and Wren’s situation made them feel better about themselves” (page 136). What do you think this statement says about humanity’s general attitude toward suffering?

5. Lewis realizes that “joy and grief are human birthrights, but mostly, being alive is everything in between” (page 152). Do you agree? Why or why not?

6. At the ocean, Lewis tries to explain his transformation: “It’s like standing in my childhood bedroom. . . . There are things I cannot unsee” (page 158). What do you think Lewis cannot unsee? What places in your life remind you of how much you’ve grown?

7. George always loves Angela, never wavering in feeling that she was the love of his life, even though they are not together. What do you think about his unrequited love from afar? What is the hardest part about loving someone who is still alive but no longer in your life?

8. Why might Angela have taught Wren to ask herself the question: “What do I need?” What does this question provide Wren? Are there questions like this that you ask yourself? If so, how do they help you?

9. Angela feels like her body has betrayed her. Have you ever felt this way? And conversely, when do you feel that your physical body is a source of strength or protection?

10. How did Angela’s condition prepare Wren to take care of Lewis? Was Wren’s prior caretaking experience ever an impediment during her time with Lewis?

11. In his transformation from man to great white shark, Lewis became much more cynical, which contrasts Margaret C. Finnegan’s unyielding optimism. How do these attitudes reflect the differing ways in which people adapt to change and hardship?

12. Why do you think Lewis and Angela have the same dream about being the stem of a pear? What do you think the dream means in each of their contexts?

13. The author uses a unique writing style, blending prose, poetry, and playwriting. Why do you think she chose these styles? In sections with sparsely written pages, what does the empty space evoke?

14. What do the transformations in Shark Heart say about the connection between humans and animals?

Enhance Your Book Club:

1. Share a time when you felt a personal connection to an animal. Or, if you could become any animal for a day, what would it be?

2. Upon his release, Lewis ruminates about his regrets. Create a list of things, big or small, that you do not want to take for granted or leave unfulfilled. Reflect on why these things matter to you and how you might pursue them.

3. Read Our Town by Thornton Wilder as a companion to Shark Heart and discuss parallels between the novel and the play.

A Conversation with Emily Habeck

Q: What was your inspiration for this unusual story?

A: Growing up in Oklahoma, the ocean always felt like a wonder and a novelty. And even though I’ve lived near the coast most of my adult life, I still feel so captivated by its mysteries and magnitude. Writing a shark with human sentience was a way of exploring this ecosystem so near and yet so different from our own.

I also think Lewis’s transformation into a great white shark mirrored my seeking when I started writing the book. I was questioning everything I thought I knew for sure. I wondered, what do we do with all the grief in this life? What is the meaning of work and the purpose of art? How do I genuinely embrace change? I still don’t have answers, but writing Shark Heart was how I made friends with the questions and began to see the beauty and freedom in not knowing.

Q: Did you ever think the premise would be considered “too weird” for readers?

A: Honestly, I didn’t! In hindsight, I think the premise’s singularity allowed me to access some ideas and feelings that I wouldn’t have been able to see so clearly were I writing about a real disease.

There are so many mysteries, uncertainties, and absurdities that we must accept to live in the world: things we’ll never know about our bodies, our minds, each other, the depths of the ocean, the universe. I really hope the readers see the animal mutations in the same way. Of all the collective absurdities we must accept in life, what’s so strange about a man becoming a great white shark?

Q: Even though it seems fantastical, Lewis’s transformation into a great white shark is believable. How did you make Lewis’s transformation seem real?

A: Like the character Lewis, I also have a background in theater, and sometimes when I write, I like to inhabit the character’s inner life, like an actor might. With Lewis, I really tried to imagine and understand what he might be experiencing. So, in bringing the reader to his emotional reality, I hoped that Lewis’s physical reality would become accessible and relatable, too.

But more so, I’m beginning to realize that the believability has less to do with my writing and more with humankind’s astounding capacity for love and empathy. The fact that readers are connecting to a fictional man becoming a great white shark is beyond humbling and makes me feel that, for all the doom and gloom in the world, the core of humanity really is loving and good.

Q: How did you choose the animals in the book?

A: I gravitated toward provocative, predatory animals because they complicate and raise the stakes. (It would be a much different story if Lewis and Angela turned into poodles!) The danger and the drama mixed with circumstantial absurdity made the animal mutations so interesting and creatively satisfying to write.

Q: Were the shifting styles (prose to poetry to script) part of your process early on, or did the formatting present itself to you after you’d made progress in the book’s writing?

A: The styles and forms were present from the first pages of the first draft. It was an intuitive decision, and it always felt like the right way to tell this story. Many of the scripted scenes are challenging moments where the characters become untethered from themselves, as if they are watching their lives happen from above. And of course, on another level, the scenes hearken to Lewis’s (and my) love of theater. Some of the scenes might even be part of the play Lewis writes in part one, but I haven’t decided, so I’ll leave that up to the reader. On the spare pages, the blank space tells the story, too.

Q: Your novel is set in Texas and Oklahoma, both places that you have lived. How much of your writing was inspired by your experiences in these locations?

A: Larry McMurtry once said that he “[felt] sky-deprived when in the forested places” and that “many, many people born to the skies of the plains feel that way.” This is certainly true for me, and writing about places that feel like home is a way of taking myself there, at least in my imagination.

Q: What do you think Shark Heart says about the nature of love?

A: I think Shark Heart says that love, whether for a romantic partner, parent, child, friend, or oneself, is a process just as much as it is an action or feeling. There’s a line at the end of the book about Wren seeing life as “a spiraling trail up a mountain. Each circling lap represents a learning cycle, the same lesson at a slightly higher elevation.” Through Lewis, Joy, and really, all the characters she meets, Wren gets multiple opportunities to climb the mountain of knowing herself.

The title, Shark Heart, actually applies to both Wren and Lewis. While Lewis has a literal shark heart by the end of the novel, Wren’s shark heart exists on the metaphorical level. Just as a shark can only swim forward, Wren persists in love, wholly knowing the risks.

Q: In addition to Lewis and Wren’s relationship, you also explore Wren’s relationship with her mother, Angela. What is the role of intergenerational trauma in the story and how does it influence Wren's present and future?

A: Intergenerational trauma wasn’t something I consciously named while writing this, but I was considering how we are shaped not only by the people in our lives but also by people who lived before our time. I believe our ancestors live within us in both concrete and spiritual ways.

Wren would not exist in the way that she does—pragmatic, careful, meticulous, hypervigilant—were it not for her childhood, mothering her mother. Wren bravely overcomes hardship and heartbreak multiple times throughout the story; her resiliency and courage is also intergenerationally learned and inherited.

Q: What message do you hope readers will take from this story?

A: I hope Shark Heart is a comfort to readers in some way, the kind of book that makes people feel less alone. I also hope that it connects readers to their own joy and appreciation for the small, good things in life, as so many books have done for me.

About The Author

Photograph by Jason Grow

Emily Habeck is an alumna of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, where she received a BFA in theatre, as well as Vanderbilt Divinity School and Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. She is from Ardmore, Oklahoma. Shark Heart is her first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books (August 8, 2023)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668006511

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Raves and Reviews

“Beguiling… Habeck’s setup allows her to grapple with big questions… [and] imbues the smallest interactions and moments with poetic weight… Surprising and pleasurably uncategorizable. Shark Heart is wild, in every sense of the word.”
New York Times Book Review

“A tender story about the endurance of a married couple’s love… Vulnerable and devastating.”

“Raw, powerful, and delightfully unusual… [Shark Heart] is structurally and lyrically daring, so much so that its pages quickly envelop readers in its emotional challenges and magic… While it begs readers to contemplate what it means to be human, it also challenges them to look at their circumstances carefully and reminds them to be grateful for what they have at hand rather than dwelling on what they may have lost. Shark Heart is an unforgettable and much needed love story for a new, uncertain, and rapidly changing era.”
–Southern Review of Books

"a sweet and heartbreaking tale highlighting the hiccups of marriage, motherhood, and grief."
—Cosmopolitan, "The 19 Summer Books That Are Must-Brings for Your Next Beach Vacay"

"A highly original, heart-rending story about abiding love that transcends trauma, grief—and even metamorphosis."
—Washington Post, "10 Noteworthy Books for July and August"

“Surprisingly moving, oddly heartwarming, and deeply contemplative.”

"Habeck’s debut explores the nature of grief through deft and beautiful writing… Poetic interludes and play-like vignettes punctuate the lyrical prose”
—Booklist (Starred Review)

“A bit Shakespeare, a bit Kafka, and a bit Disney… [this] debut stands out from the pack.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“A poignant tale of grief and change.”
—Town and Country

"Shark Heart is a fantastical, original, and beautifully-written novel of abandonment, love, and Ovidian transformation. It explores illness, caretaking, devotion, magical thinking, and loss—and of course great white sharks—in ways that are funny, sad, and surprising. Every page bursts with heart.
—Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See and Cloud Cuckoo Land

"In Shark Heart, Emily Habeck doesn’t shy away from the agony of goodbyes, or the torture that can accompany unexpected freedom. With an otherworldly tenderness, she reminds us that life will always demand that we give over to its momentum and adapt. The fact that these lessons are thrilling, hilarious, and effortless to read are the miracle of the book. I suspect I will ponder this book over and over; so rich with fantasy yet as frank and real as anything I’ve ever read."
—Mary Louise Parker, author of Dear Mr. You

"Shark Heart is one of those rare books that reaches right into you and reflects lived experience so exactly, and so poetically, that it feels like you're being seen. It wears its heart openly and unapologetically on its sleeve. Equal parts tenderly comedic and tragic, the book was a difficult one to read, but I'm so glad I did."
—Marianne Gordon, author of The Gilded Crown

‘A stunning debut which grabs you with its unique style, holds you within its vulnerability and leaves you with a bittersweet aching. This is not just a story of love, it’s a story of goodbyes. Habeck delivers an innovative and inspirational story that emotionally captures its readers until the end.’
—Fantasy Hive

"A beautifully written, heart-wringing story about love and change, about moving forward—as a shark always must—and what is lost and what gained as we do so. Habeck has an extraordinary command of her writerly instrument, crafting sentence after sentence that feel effortless and yet are eloquent and penetrating and superb. This is the highlight of my reading-year so far."

—Adam Roberts, international bestselling author of Salt and The This

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