Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy
Review by Whitney Gilchrist
A rare abstract sentence in Maile Meloy’s new novel Do Not Become Alarmed offers a way of understanding the story itself: “One aspect of human resilience, in all its marvelousness, was the ability to recalibrate, to adjust to new circumstances with astonishing speed.” The story embeds this reflection on “recalibrat[ion]” and “circumstances,” following members of two American families and one Argentinian family. They all skip the holidays at home in favor of a South American cruise. After a day’s shore excursion ends with all three families’ children going missing, their lives converge with assorted other characters in a story both riveting and beautifully told.
Read from start to finish, the story posits a question and doesn’t blink until it has offered a possible answer. The story asks what it means to be a survivor of this unlikely experience, one that must worry American parents with enough money to take their children on an overseas vacation. If your children were kidnapped but your family survives, is it a catastrophe?
Of course, survival and persistence are complicated, but Meloy packages her thinking into a crisply woven story. To get at the nuance of human emotion in this state of crisis, the perspective hops from character to character in a close third person. The effect is a kind of weaving in and out of the characters’ minds as blame circulates like a current, as regret cripples, and as they each persist. At more intimate moments, the reader feels in conversation with the characters, in the kind of conversation that searches to understand why an awful thing has happened. The first and last chapters (and a number in the middle) follow one of the American mothers, Liv, but Meloy manages also to capture every other character whose perspective we meet with equal empathy.
This expert empathy is characteristic of Meloy, whose work I first encountered in The New Yorker with a short story called “Madame Lazarus,” in which an aging gay man living in Paris gradually loses both his young partner and his dog. In an expert feat of craft, Meloy balances the emotional weight of the story between the protagonist’s present and flashbacks that confront his saddest memories. In Do Not Become Alarmed, Meloy has harnessed that gift for writing from diverse perspectives tenderly and intimately, giving each character both a past and a fair shake at the future.
In fact, the movement from character to character is a primary driver of the tension in the book. In the time spent with the novel, the reader learns to both expect and to revel in shifts in point-of-view. This technique gives multi-dimensionality to a story whose premise could easily devolve into alarmism or vapidity. Perhaps the reader would become alarmed if not for the breath and tenderness of the narration. As is, the novel is anything but alarmist. It succeeds largely because it doesn’t flinch in either of two directions: it’s not too pretentious to delve into a thrilling story of kidnap and escape, nor is it too concerned with being a thriller to develop its characters. The novel is also unafraid to exist in its time, parts of the story featuring what the characters post on Instagram, little signals they send one another after they are back home in other countries. Instead of becoming too hip, these details exists in service of asking those difficult what-if questions.
The idea of experience governs this novel. Americans inherit a culture that for many generations has commodified experience, valuing the accumulation of experiences (especially overseas) not for self-improvement but for self-aggrandizement. If experience is a fine line we ride between danger and fun, the novel asks, when that line dissolves and we are in danger, how do we recalibrate our concepts of escapism, vacation, experience?
In one of the epigraph’s quotations, Teddy Roosevelt plainly states that “Americans learn only from catastrophe and not from experience.” It creates an eerie dissonance when read before the second epigraph, a quotation from Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica: “It is a fact that it takes experience before one can realize what is a catastrophe and what is not.” The two conceptions of “experience” and “catastrophe” grate eerily together, even before the first page. Interestingly, the two men quoted would have had vastly different experiences of the world: Roosevelt was an American born in the late 1800s, while Richard Hughes was a British national born in Jamaica in 1900. The novel’s form itself offers very little epi-textual information beyond these epigraphs and the title; the chapters are simply numbered one through sixty-six. After some time with the story, that choice seems to be in service of allowing unanswered questions to resonate with the reader—questions like, “What are the catastrophic costs of our experience?” and “What are our experiences of catastrophe?” It is to the novel’s credit that it does not offer clear answers. Surely each reader, like any good conversationalist, will bring their own experiences and catastrophes to the page.
While it is possible to call this book a thriller, it thrills for a reason. To read this novel today is to investigate and experiment with the concept of survival from perspectives we hope never to gain through our bodily experiences. This novel is a moral reckoning for our time, our culture, and our Cali-king-sized American dream—the one that has an Instagram presence.
Whitney Gilchrist is a former member of the Mississippi Teacher Corps and a fiction writer studying in the Florida State University MFA program.