When I read the description of Maile Meloy’s Do Not Become Alarmed, I was expecting quite a lot from the book. Her previous books have been received positively and this one had a strong premise. When things go wrong for three rich families somewhere in Central America, lots of questions are raised about money, race, and privilege. The plotlines involve high stakes, kidnapping. Its characters are granted space to change and grow — something we demand very strictly of fictional people, if less often of real ones. Its writing is uniformly excellent. But I didn’t like the book.
Liv and Nora, thirtysomething cousins from LA, book themselves, husbands and kids onto a two-week cruise down the coast of Mexico and Central America. Once on board, they hook up with another family, wealthy Argentinians with two long-limbed, sporty teenagers. When the husbands go golfing for the day, the mothers take all six kids, aged six to 15, on an excursion. “This is a good country for us to go ashore in,” Liv says. “They call it the Switzerland of Latin America.”
And yes, alarm bells are already ringing. For the unnamed country turns out to be not very Swiss at all, but frighteningly chaotic and sinisterly foreign; you read on with mounting dread, as well as excitement, for it’s impossible not to relish the skill with which Meloy ratchets up the tension.
First, Pedro the well-meaning but lamentably chilled tour guide crashes the car, leaving his charges shaken and marooned without a bus in sight. Next, shepherding them to a pretty little beach at the mouth of a river, where he assures them it’s safe for the children to cool off in the water, he passes round frozen rum and openly flirts with Nora. As the children shriek and splash, Liv and Camila, the Argentinian mother, doze off in the sun, while Nora heads off into the trees for “a little no-strings attention” from Pedro. A few moments later, all six children are gone.
All credit to Meloy’s glistening prose that every detail of this grisly scene is shudderingly convincing. The sultry afternoon, the beautiful, sheltered Americans knocked off course by a routine accident but left with no choice but to trust in the local, the faint moments of comedy, the momentary lapses of attention – all of it rings uneasily true. Once the children are gone, everything accelerates and the plot unfurls swiftly and sleekly with chapters moving back and forth between adults and children with barely a viewpoint left unturned. As one queasy event follows another, it becomes clear that Meloy is not going to spare us – the children are alive, but for how long? – and there is no question of not reading on. I can’t remember the last time I gobbled a novel down so fast. Sadly, it wasn’t long before I realised I did not like the taste it was leaving.
The problem can be identified in one word: tone. Given the sometimes graphically unpleasant nature of the events she describes, Meloy’s writing begins to lack scope, sensitivity and even, sometimes, heart. It’s almost as if, having decided to explore a subject with such viscerally dark and dramatic potential, she can’t quite trust to the subtlety of her prose and allow less to be more: instead, she loses her nerve, retreating into quips and platitudes. Although we are told that the parents are distraught at having lost their children to this land of hungry crocodiles and ruthless criminals, we never quite feel it. Conversations seem oddly banal and lacking in any real urgency or despair. Yes, the grown-ups bicker and blame themselves and each other, but only in the way you might if your luggage or your iPad had gone missing.
At its best moments, Do Not Become Alarmed captures the anxiety of being the kind of parent with the least right to be anxious, a rich American one, the feeling that even our best efforts (the most enormous, cocooning cruise ship!) cannot safeguard us from danger. It’s an interesting notion, but because Meloy ventures half-heartedly into her ambitious themes, it barely emerges. “Their parents are American,” one local character thinks. “They don’t know anything.” This book is supposed to be a sally against that blindness. It only seems like proof of it.
I was provided an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.