Books of The Times: Soft Children Confront a Hard World in Maile Meloy’s New Novel

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Her best books remain her first two, the story collection “Half in Love” (2002) and the novel “Liars and Saints” (2003). “Do Not Become Alarmed” is her first novel in more than a decade. In recent years, she has composed a well-regarded young-adult trilogy of novels, The Apothecary Series.


Maile Meloy

The story told in “Do Not Become Alarmed” is every parent’s nightmare. The two mothers, along with a third mother they met on the ship, and their six children leave the vessel to go on a zip-line outing in Central America. When their guide’s van breaks down, and they learn that a replacement van will take hours, they decide to spend the day where they are, on a remote beach.

While their children play in the water, two of the mothers fall asleep. A third disappears into the woods with the handsome guide for a bit of light and uncharacteristic fooling around.

While the parents aren’t paying attention, their children vanish. They’ve been sucked by the current around a bend and up a river. The children stumble upon something they should not see — shades of Alex Garland’s undervalued thriller “The Beach” (1997) — and are snatched by bad characters.

I won’t give away more of this novel’s plot. But one of the mothers is a movie executive. If she had to deliver an elevator pitch for the film version of this novel, it would probably be: “Modern Family” meets “Narcos,” the Netflix series about the Medellín drug cartel.

Meloy pokes around in some profound subject matter. This novel returns more than once to the notion that these children are too soft and tame, that their parents have not prepared them properly for the world.

Plush first-world lives come in for scrutiny. “The karmic bus had mowed her down,” one of the mothers thinks. “She was being punished for living in a false world, spongy and insulated from the reality around her. For living in a house with an alarm system, in a neighborhood where the only Latinos were gardeners and day laborers.”

Another mother — the one who fooled around with the guide — thinks: “The one time she had slipped, she had been punished like Job. God had sent a lightning bolt to destroy everything she cared about.”

These women and their husbands aren’t distinct characters; they’re upper-middle-class types. The crunchy details, the chili-rub and panko crust that would bring them to life, are absent. The mom who’s the movie executive doesn’t feel like one.

Perhaps the longest description of her work is clichéd and halfhearted, and comes from her husband: “That was good for Liz — to be offline and away from the studio. Even when a movie got made, the path it took always sounded to him like a drug deal gone wrong. Lies, threats, incrimination, betrayal, last-minute bargaining, total lunacy. She needed a break.”

You wait for her to turn into Sherry Lansing and chew some scenery, but it never happens. Meloy tells this story from multiple perspectives — the most tantalizing character is the American-educated son of a drug-world figure — but there is a sameness of tone to the narrative strands.

“Do Not Become Alarmed” grows darker than you might expect. The kids are not all right. What’s more, the novel becomes interested in the notion not just of moral culpability but of hate.

The children turn on one another and their parents. The parents turn on one another. One father thinks: “He could kill those women with his bare hands.”

It is impossible to read anything in 2017, or write anything, without thinking of America’s political and moral predicament. It’s tendentious to mention it in every review, but I am thinking about it while writing every line of every review.

Meloy’s portrait of well-meaning but still ugly Americans resonates. So does her depiction of a certain kind of mental state. She writes (the italics are mine): “It turned out the police had found a dead woman at the Herrera house, in their raid, which a week ago would have made Liz lose her mind, but how many times could you lose your mind?

Near the end of this novel, one of the luckier parents thinks: “He and his family had escaped, leaving chaos behind them. It was the American way.”

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