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Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

Book cover for At the Heart of the Universe
Book cover for At the Heart of the UniverseBook cover for At the Heart of the Universe

The story of two mothers and a father in love with the same daughter, Samuel Shem's At the Heart of the Universe is an epic novel set deep in rural China against the backdrop of an ancient mountain monastery during the time of the one-child-per-family policy.

Inspired by the author's experiences as parent of an adopted child, it describes the drama of adoption and the journey of loss and rebirth that can happen when a daughter brings together her adopted mother and father with her birth mother high on a mountaintop.

Set in 1991 in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, as a Chinese woman abandons her one-month-old daughter in a pile of celery in a busy market, and then shifting to Changsha ten years later as the daughter returns with her adopted American parents, the story moves across southern China until, high atop Emei San, one of China's "sacred mountains" with a Buddhist temple, the four are brought together in the wilderness—a perilous and explosive time that unleashes their heartbreak and suffering and, remarkably, transcends it to shared compassion, and new beginnings.

Book cover for At the Heart of the Universe
Book cover for At the Heart of the UniverseBook cover for At the Heart of the Universe

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“A heartfelt exploration of the meaning of family and how the bonds that link people surpass cultural, religious, and economic divides.”

At the Heart of the Universe tells a moving story that is full of understanding and psychological intensity. In the context of a harrowing adventure in contemporary China, this large-hearted novel reaffirms the necessity of empathy, self-discovery, love.”

At the Heart of the Universe is poignant and tender, a novel about love, about parenting and the nature of home. Shem’s insights about China and about character remind us that geography is destiny. This is a lovely, transformative story.”

“A powerful, gripping tour de force. A story that will stay with you forever, unforgettable characters, and vivid writing that brings China alive from Changsha City to the sacred Mount Emei. One of the very best books I've ever read and fallen in love with.”

“[At the Heart of the Universe] is an imaginative and truly creative exploration of the amazing ways that adoption affects the many people touched by it.”

“This is both a gorgeous novel of particulars set against the fascinating backdrop of the Chinese mountains, and a hauntingly universal account of loss, gain, and new beginnings.”

“The historic confrontation between America and China is distilled to its poignant essence in At the Heart of the Universe—a story of one family and its unbreakable ties both to one another, and to the larger human fate. Samuel Shem is a sharp-minded, compassionate writer whose work always illuminates.”

“Entwining ancient Chinese customs and modern American family life, Shem takes us on a compelling journey into the thicket of desperate love and aching doubts that define the parent-child relationship.”

At the Heart of the Universe is a moving exploration of what it means to be a family in this global world, and the complications of love within it. These characters are heartbreaking in both their flaws and yearnings, and by the ending, I had tears in my eyes.”

Samuel Shem
Bestselling novelist Samuel Shem is known as the author of the three million copy–selling modern classic, The House of God, which with dazzling humor describes the horrors and banalities of working in hospitals—and is required reading for medical students and doctors. A Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Medical School faculty member for over three decades, Shem is currently Professor of Medicine in Medical Humanities at NYU Medical School. He has given over sixty medical school commencement addresses on "Staying Human in Medicine." His other books include The Spirit of the Place, named USA Book News Best Novel of the Year and Independent Publishers Best Novel of the Year in 2009. His award-winning play Bill W. and Dr. Bob, co-written with his wife Janet Surrey, about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, ran for ten months Off-Broadway in 2013. Surrey and Shem are co-authors of the 2015 book The Buddha's Wife: The Path of Awakening Together. He lives in Boston and Costa Rica, together with Janet and their daughter Katie.  You can visit his website at