Don’t be fooled by the title: Ann Kidd Taylor’s The Shark Club might keep you out of the water, but only because you’re turning pages. Indeed, the heroine of Taylor’s story, Maeve Donnelly, was a victim of a minor shark attack herself as a child, but she has grown up to become a lover of sharks, devoting her life to researching their behavior. For Maeve, diving with sharks is a kind of therapy for deeper wounds. Orphaned as a young girl and betrayed as a young woman on the eve of her wedding, Maeve has come to prefer the company of sharks. Fish, at least, are predictable in their behavior.
The Shark Club is Ann Kidd Taylor’s debut novel, but she is also the co-author—with her mother, the novelist Sue Monk Kidd—of Traveling with Pomegranates, a bestselling travel memoir. Taylor brings to her fiction a sensitivity to place that is typical of the best travel writing, gracefully drawing Maeve’s character through her observations of the sun-splashed beaches and waters of the Southern Gulf Coast. Reading The Shark Club, I felt the heat and light and color and salt wind coming off the water, and I suspect many readers will enjoy these same sensations alongside the actual stuff. The Shark Club is certainly positioned to be a popular beach read, and it delivers many of the pleasures one hopes for from a novel set largely in an eccentric hotel on a coastal island named Palermo.
Taylor presents an appealing cast of characters and skillfully weaves together multiple plotlines involving romance, family trauma, and environmental crimes. Maeve lives in the Hotel of the Muses, where each guestroom is named after a poet or novelist. The proprietor, Maeve’s grandmother, Perri, adopted Maeve and her twin brother Robin after their parents died in a plane crash. Growing up on Palermo, Maeve comes to love sharks and Daniel (the fiancé who later breaks her heart). Robin, a ne’er-do-well frustrated novelist, comes to love trouble.
The novel’s present action takes place just after Maeve’s thirtieth birthday, when she returns to Palermo and discovers that Daniel has taken up residence as the chef at the Hotel of the Muses and that Robin has finished and sold his novel, which, it turns out, is a not-so-thinly veiled account of Maeve and Daniel’s doomed romance. Throw in a handsome English marine biologist who is vying with the now humbled and contrite Daniel for Maeve’s affections—plus a shark-fin poaching scheme which arouses Maeve’s instincts to defend her beloved sharks—and you’ve got a suspenseful and emotionally satisfying page-turner.
Taylor seems to be suggesting that human beings are far more treacherous and threatening to each other than sharks are, but that most of the damage we do is similarly instinctive or unintentional. “I know the shark was exhibiting classic hit-and-run behavior,” Maeve says of her own injury: “a bump, a single bite, and then a retreat when it realizes its prey is not food.” But Daniel is harder to forgive: “The worst agony was … realizing I couldn’t trust the person I’d known and loved since childhood,” she says. Now, after years of finding solace in the company of sharks, Maeve is forced to confront emotions long buried “in places that light cannot reach.”
The emotional core of The Shark Club is a need for reconciliation and the ability to rebuild trust in her own species. It’s also the chance to discover life above as well as below the surface of the sea.
Ed Tarkington’s debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016. He lives in Nashville.