Most of us, even in this country, do not lead lives untouched by disaster. We are every day at the mercy of random events, of other people, and once in a while, our worlds are attacked and restructured by circumstances we can never hope to control. We rarely deserve our luck, good or bad, and when we do, it doesn’t always come because we’ve earned it. It’s easy, and probably adaptive, to ignore all of this, to tend our gardens and avert our eyes from the threats we can do nothing about. But we’re eternally vulnerable, and all of us will suffer. So says the universe, and so says author Maile Meloy, who sounds the alarm in her latest novel, “Do Not Become Alarmed.”
Liv and Nora, cousins and best friends, take a holiday cruise with their husbands and children, departing Los Angeles and winding down the coast of Mexico and Central America. It’s a harmless enough choice — Liv dispenses with her environmental concerns with “a little shudder of guilt” — that opens the way for everything that follows. “That was something [Liv] was trying to work on: not always second-guessing her decisions, wondering if she’d made the wrong one. But how could you know if you’d made the right decision, when you only saw one version play out?”
The version that plays out is not one that anyone would have chosen. As the result of several accidents and blunders and minor lapses in judgment, Liv and Nora’s children, aged between 6 and 11, go missing during a shore excursion, along with the two teenage children of an Argentine couple they befriend on the cruise. The novel is told from multiple points of view, alternating between the adults and the children as they scramble to find one another.
The sky having fallen, the adults try to make sense of their situation, judging and blaming each other and themselves. Though the disappearance was unforeseeable — involving, among other misfortunes, a car crash, a wanton tide and a…