Sometimes love comes upon you gently, in a sidelong look, a flush to the cheek, the brush of a hand.
And sometimes it just bites you on the leg and leaves a scar.
The latter is the case in Ann Kidd Taylor's charming debut novel, The Shark Club. Its narrator, Maeve Donnelly, was 12 years old when she had her first kiss, standing with her first love, Daniel, in the waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Seconds later, a blacktip shark knocked Daniel off his feet and then took an experimental bite out of Maeve's calf.
The shark let her go literally (humans are not preferred prey), but not metaphorically. Seized by a fascination with sharks, by age 30 Maeve is a globetrotting marine biologist specializing in studying those mysterious, beautiful and much-feared creatures.
As The Shark Club opens, Maeve has come home to Florida for a visit with her grandmother, who raised her and twin brother Robin after their parents died in a plane crash. On the beach at the hotel her grandmother owns — the same beach that was the site of the first kiss-first shark bite scenario — Maeve meets an irresistible little girl named Hazel, who is just as interested in sharks as Maeve is.
Then Hazel's father shows up. It's Daniel. Daniel of the first kiss, Daniel who broke Maeve's heart by having an affair that resulted in Hazel's birth, and whom she hasn't seen since.
He's now head chef at the hotel's restaurant and full-time parent to Hazel, after the death of her mother. And he makes it clear he'd like to rekindle his relationship with Maeve.
He's sexy, he cooks, he has a cute kid, he's sorry he hurt her — so what's the holdup? One problem in their relationship before was that he was willing to make career sacrifices for domestic life, and she wasn't (refreshing twist, that).
Their attitudes haven't changed — Maeve has a study of whale sharks in Mozambique coming up, and she plans to go. And, oh, on her last research trip in Bimini, she worked with a dashing British scientist named Nicholas, and he's just up the road at a marine center in Sarasota, and maybe he'll go to Mozambique, too.
Further complicating Maeve's life are Robin's about-to-be-published novel, which is based on her past and not in a way she likes, and an illegal shark-finning operation in local waters that is leaving mutilated sharks to die, spurring her to her own risky investigation.
Taylor, who co-wrote the bestselling Traveling With Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story with her mom, Sue Monk Kidd, lives in Southwest Florida. She brings a wealth of sharply observed detail to this novel, from the right way to make key lime pie to the joys of dealing with tourists. She also carefully researched sharks and gives props to real-life scientists Sylvia Earle and Eugenie Clark.
For me, one of the most seductive features of The Shark Club is the setting, the Hotel of the Muses. Owned by Maeve's grandmother, Perri, and situated on the Gulf in the fictional town of Palermo (which sounds like the real town of Naples), the hotel "is overrun with books." It has a library trolley and hosts readings and book clubs.
"Every one of the eighty-two rooms," Taylor writes, "was dedicated to an author whose work Perri admired — Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Octavio Paz. ..." She even quotes a fictional rave review of the hotel from the Tampa Bay Times. If that hotel were real, I'd write that review.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.