August 14, 2019

“Do Not Become Alarmed” is Maile Meloy’s fifth novel. While this book can be easily read as a thriller or a narration of a nightmare vacation, it is more than that. It is an exploration of the dilemmas of modern parenting, marriage, blame, guilt, innocence, jealousy, race, gender, the gap between rich and poor, travel, the challenge of living up to your own expectations, and language barriers, just to mention a few topics.

It will also make you wonder about just how really well vetted and trained the local guides are who are responsible for cruise ship passengers taking ship-sanctioned ground tours. And all this in a remote third-world country controlled by drug smugglers and crooked cops. This may sound like a lot, but each of these subjects come into play in certain ways during the course of this book.

First let me give you a quick overview of the book’s premise. Close cousins Liv and Nora decide to take their families on a Christmas cruise from San Pedro, Calif., down through Central America. Their children consist of two 11-year-olds, an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old who has Type 1 diabetes. They befriend an Argentinian couple on board who have two children of their own. When the ship arrives in Costa Rica, the three mothers decide to take the children on a ship-sanctioned zip-line tour while the fathers play golf. On the way, their vehicle is involved in an accident, and their guide informs them that it will be hours until alternate arrangements can be made. He suggests that since they have time on their hands they should go to a nearby beach while they wait.

Without telling you more details of the plot, let me say that after only a few minutes of inattention, the children are there one minute and the next they are gone, thus starting a nightmare scenario for all three families. The choices each of the parents and children make both up to and after the disappearance tells a story of “what-ifs.”

The storyline alternates from the perspectives of both all three sets of parents and the children. As the story progresses, the reader sees the disintegration of the safety and control that the parents are accustomed to and take for granted. The parents, riddled with stress, begin to turn on each other while they look for someone else to blame. Not one of the adults is held culpable, yet each had some part to play in the crisis. The dark subject matter is a terrifying read as a parent’s worst nightmare scenario is played out in raw and brutal detail with no emotion being spared in an unknown, foreign land.

The book begins slowly. It doesn’t begin to pick up until about page 90. There was a side-story about Noemi, an Ecuadorian girl, that probably could have been eliminated without the story suffering. The premise of this book should appeal to readers who liked “The Girl On The Train,” “Bel Canto,” “I Let You Go” or “The Couple Next Door.”

Reviewed by David Beckwith, author of “A Ransom Conspiracy.”