Do Not Become Alarmed

Maile Meloy doesn’t waste a second before subverting the title of her gripping new novel, Do Not Become Alarmed. Catastrophe is the subject of a pair of foreboding epigrams, and that’s before you’ve even reached the first page. Then there’s the setting for the story, a luxurious Christmas cruise. Think about it — what’s the last bit of good news you heard coming from the public exploits of a cruise line?

Exactly.

So here we are, boarding the ship with two young families. Liv and Nora are cousins in their thirties, and they’re also close friends. To help Nora get through the first holiday season after her mother’s death, Liv has suggested that the two families take a joint vacation. Together with their husbands and four young children, the women trade the bubble of their well-heeled lives in Los Angeles for the even more sheltered cocoon of the ship.

They’re headed south from L.A., down the western coast of the Americas for two weeks. A U-turn at the mechanical marvels of the Panama Canal is a sweetener for Liv’s husband, an engineer. The truth is, a cruise isn’t the first choice of vacation for any of the adults, who feel themselves too self-aware to be able to enjoy the artifice of shipboard life. But soon enough they’re seduced.

Take the endless buffet that instantly erases the burden of daily meal planning:

Watching them eat, Liv felt her mind relax, easing its calculation. Feeding children, even when you had all available resources, took so much planning and forethought. The low-grade anxiety about the next meal started when you were cleaning up the last. But for two weeks there would never be any question about what was for dinner, or lunch, or snack. That roving hunter-gatherer part of her brain, which sucked a lot of power and made the other lights dim, she could just turn it off.

The spell of seaborne luxury is cast, and the sailing is, well, smooth. The Kids Club, an oasis of perpetual amusements overseen by a jolly and competent staff, sets the adults free to laze and lounge and nap. And a friendship with a sophisticated Argentinian couple and their two glamorous teenagers gives the excursion a gloss of worldliness. Maybe self-aware skepticism is overrated?

But as Meloy reels you into the story with her cool and fluid prose, she clearly signals that yes, you should absolutely — and perhaps even perpetually — be more than a little alarmed.

The first hint is when two of the six children briefly go missing aboard ship. Add in Liv’s first-world tendency to see peril in almost anything — sharks and riptides on a proposed surfing lesson, the risk of a bus crash on a trip to a hummingbird sanctuary, the kids getting hooked on caffeine on a tour of a coffee plantation — and you can feel the karmic comeuppance on the horizon.

When it arrives, it’s a doozy. While at port in an unnamed country that sounds a lot like Costa Rica, the three dads go golfing. The moms, all six kids in tow, decide on a zip-line tour of the rain forest. “This is a good country for us to go ashore in,” Liv says. “They call it the Switzerland of Latin America.”

But things don’t go as planned, and the isolated beach they wind up on proves a gateway to crisis: In an instant, all six children go missing. Aged six to fourteen, they’re defined by their vulnerabilities. Diabetes, Asperger’s, pre-teen brattiness, teenage beauty — each faces a particular kind of danger.

With the kids gone, it’s not only the now-frantic parents who have to strap in. We readers do as well. In a headlong rush — a zip-line turns out to be the perfect metaphor for Meloy’s narrative technique — cause is followed by outsized effect, and bad timing begets even worse luck.

“I’m afraid I’ve taught my children to be too good,” Nora says at one point, sure the advice that eased her biracial children through their American lives would now prove their undoing. “I wanted to keep them safe. I taught them that they can’t play with plastic guns, ever. And they can’t lose their tempers. I wanted them to not draw attention to themselves. I wanted them to be small targets.”

You want Nora to be reassured. But when it comes to the genuine perils of an indifferent world, Meloy pulls no punches. As the story roars to a close, we’re forced to face just how random life actually is, and how close to a precipice each of us stands.

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