Do Not Become Alarmed

Do Not Become Alarmed

by Maile Meloy


$16.00 View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


The moving and suspenseful new novel that Ann Patchett calls "smart and thrilling and impossible to put down... the book that every reader longs for."

“This summer’s undoubtable smash hit… an addictive, heart-palpitating story.” —Marie Claire

The sun is shining, the sea is blue, the children have disappeared.

When Liv and Nora decide to take their husbands and children on a holiday cruise, everyone is thrilled. The adults are lulled by the ship’s comfort and ease. The four children—ages six to eleven—love the nonstop buffet and their newfound independence. But when they all go ashore for an adventure in Central America, a series of minor misfortunes and miscalculations leads the families farther from the safety of the ship. One minute the children are there, and the next they’re gone.
The disintegration of the world the families knew—told from the perspectives of both the adults and the children—is both riveting and revealing. The parents, accustomed to security and control, turn on each other and blame themselves, while the seemingly helpless children discover resources they never knew they possessed.
Do Not Become Alarmed is a story about the protective force of innocence and the limits of parental power, and an insightful look at privileged illusions of safety. Celebrated for her spare and moving fiction, Maile Meloy has written a gripping novel about how quickly what we count on can fall away, and the way a crisis shifts our perceptions of what matters most.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735216532
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 376,919
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Maile Meloy is the author of the novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, the short-story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (named one of the 10 Best Books of 2009 by The New York Times Book Review), and a bestselling middle-grade trilogy. Her fiction has won the Paris Review's Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award, and the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Meloy was shortlisted for the UK's Orange Prize and chosen as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


Los Angeles, California

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Helena, Montana


M.F.A. in Fiction, University of California, Irvine, 2000

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 7.

The kids were engrossed in a complicated game with the three inner tubes, making a kind of raft that they could stand on. It required a great deal of concentration. Hector was the master of the game, and he kept everyone involved. He didn’t leave Sebastian and June out, or cut them any slack just because they were little. Penny admired that in him.
He tossed his wet hair off his face. If Hector had been in a band, Penny’s friends would have fainted over him. And he could be in a band. He played guitar that well.
He was good at building a structure, too, like her father was. He gave directions, saying, “Hold there. Now, Penny, you sit there. Okay, now you can stand up there. Now Penny, too.” He kept the whole three-ring raft stable. She loved hearing him say her name. His stomach was tan and slick above his pink-and-green checked shorts.
Every few minutes, someone would slip or step in the wrong place and everyone would go crashing into the water, screaming with delight, the inner tubes flying. Hector would make sure everyone was safe and afloat, and then they would start rebuilding.
They were so focused that they didn’t notice when the tide changed. It must have paused when they were first in the water. Then it reversed, and began to flow inland. No one noticed that the water from the sea was pushing them upstream, slowly at first, and then with surprising force.
When they finally looked up, waterlogged, each with an arm slung over a tube and legs treading the silty water, they were in a different place. There was no beach. There were no mothers on towels. The river was starting to narrow. It was overhung with trees.
Penny squinted against the sun. She was hanging on to an inner tube with Isabel, and had one arm over the smaller tube June and Sebastian were on. Her fingertips were pruned. She felt her little brother’s arm slide against hers. Hector and Marcus were on the third tube. Birds sang, and insects buzzed in the trees, but there were no human sounds.
“What do we do?” she asked.
They all looked to Hector, their leader. He frowned. Then he said, “We hold on and kick back.” He rolled his long body over and started to kick.
They tried, all six of them, to propel themselves back toward the beach. But it was pointless, the tidal current was too strong. The little ones spluttered, water in their faces.
“Stop!” Hector commanded.
The song of insects and birds returned. On they floated, with the muscle of the river.
“Will they come find us?” Sebastian asked, in a small voice.
“Of course they will,” Penny said. And really, what was keeping them? The jungle on the bank looked impenetrable, but their mothers would find a way.
“Should we shout?” Marcus asked.
Together they cried, “Mom,” “Mommy,” “Mami,” in one shrill, beseeching voice. Then they stopped, as if with the swipe of a conductor’s wand, and waited in the silence. There was no response. The river swirled around them.
“I have to pee,” June said.
“Just go in the water,” her brother said.
“I can’t.”
“Why not?”
“I just can’t. What about those fish that swim up the pee, inside you?”
“That’s in the Amazon,” Marcus said.
“Why couldn’t they be here?” June asked.
“Because the Amazon doesn’t connect to here,” he said.
Penny already had peed, and hoped those fish really weren’t in the water. On the left bank, there was a tiny sloping place. They all kicked to it and clambered out.
It felt good to be on solid ground. As soon as they stood up, it seemed clear that they should wait here, rather than traveling ever farther away from their mothers. It had been smart to get out.
Penny helped June find a place to peel down her wet bathing suit, behind a tree. The trees were like something out of fairy tales: thick, twisted, hung with vines. June peed into the damp ground, looking up.
“Are you scared, Penny?” she asked.
“No,” Penny lied.
“Because they’re going to find us?”

“Yes,” Penny said. She helped June pull up her swimsuit straps and felt very grown-up. Isabel might be the oldest girl, but Penny was the one June knew and trusted. Her mother had told her to keep an eye on Sebastian and she had, but she hadn’t known this would happen.
“I’m hungry,” June said.
“We can go back to the buffet on the ship,” Penny said. “When they find us.”
They rejoined the group, and Hector announced, “I’m going to swim back.”
“You can’t swim against the river,” Marcus said.
“I can,” he said. “If I stay to the sides. Where the water goes the other direction.”
Penny had been whitewater rafting with her grandparents. “You mean in the eddies,” she said.
Isabel said something protesting.
“I’ll come back for you,” Hector said. He waded out, lowered his body in near the bank, and started swimming. He was very strong. His arms slashed through the water. They watched in silence as he disappeared around a bend. Then they were alone.

“We should be on the other side of the river,” Marcus said.
“We can’t get up that bank,” Penny said.
They studied the other side of the river and the steep mud bank. And then the bank moved. At least it seemed to move. There were tangled roots, and a section of the mottled mud was sliding.
“Oh!” Penny said.
Isabel said something under her breath.
It was not mud sliding, but an enormous crocodile, sunning itself on the bank. It had moved its big sinister head, split by a row of teeth, but now it settled again, motionless.

Isabel put a hand over her mouth.

“Hector will be okay,” Marcus said.

Sebastian and June weren’t paying attention. They had started making a small mud castle in the soft ground. No one said anything more to alarm them. Penny imagined her mother picking her way through the trees on the opposite bank and coming across that monster. They had to get back before that happened. But there was no reason crocodiles wouldn’t be on this side of the river, too. Penny stepped backward. She wanted to get away from the water, away from the muddy banks.
Isabel put a hand over her mouth.
“Hector will be okay,” Marcus said.
Sebastian and June weren’t paying attention. They had started making a small mud castle in the soft ground. No one said anything more to alarm them. Penny imagined her mother picking her way through the trees on the opposite bank and coming across that monster. They had to get back before that happened. But there was no reason crocodiles wouldn’t be on this side of the river, too. Penny stepped backward. She wanted to get away from the water, away from the muddy banks.
In the trees behind them, they heard an engine noise, and turned.
“There’s a road!” Penny said. She started toward it.
“We have to stay here,” Isabel said. “And wait for Hector.”
“We should find the road,” Penny said.
They looked at each other. A battle of wills. Penny had read the phrase in books and knew that this was what it meant. Isabel was older. But Penny was smarter. She could not say in front of the little ones that they might be eaten by a crocodile if they stayed here, but she beamed the argument into Isabel’s eyes.
“I’m hungry,” Sebastian said.
“Me too,” June said.
Penny thought of how her mother would panic when she saw they were gone. Sebastian needed food or his blood sugar would drop, but he also needed insulin or his blood sugar might go too high. And he didn’t have his pump.
Marcus said they should hang the inner tubes on a branch, to show where they had left the river. Isabel clearly wasn’t happy about the plan, but she didn’t want to stay alone, so the five of them set off into the dense forest. The crocodile on the other bank hadn’t moved again. Hector would be fine, Penny told herself.
There was no trail, and it was painful, climbing barefoot over roots and fallen trees. Beneath the undergrowth, things scuttled away. Penny saw ants marching in a column, carrying green pieces of leaves over their heads like sails. She took Sebastian’s hand, a thing he would not usually tolerate.
They stumbled out into a clearing, where a Jeep was parked. Two men sat on the ground drinking bottles of Coke. They stared as if the children were fairies, materialized from the woods.
“Say something Spanish,” Penny whispered to Isabel.
“No,” Isabel whispered back.
“Hola!” Penny called.
The men just stared. There were two shovels on the ground and their clothes were dirty.
“Can I have a Coke?” Sebastian whispered to Penny.
The door of the Jeep opened, and a woman got out. She had strong brown arms, and she wore a beige tank top and cargo pants. Penny thought she looked like the girl action figure that goes with the toy Jeep. The woman asked them a question in too-fast Spanish.
Isabel didn’t answer.
Penny said, “We’re Americans.” That seemed important to say.
“How long you stand here?” the woman asked in English.
“We just got here,” Penny said. “We walked from the river.”
“We were looking for a road.”
“Is no road,” the woman said.
“We heard an engine,” Penny said, looking pointedly at the Jeep.
“Where are your parents?”
“At the big beach, down the river,” Penny said. “We came from the ship, a big cruise ship, but then we had a car accident. We were swimming. Mi hermano es diabético.” She’d been taught that sentence before they left, for emergencies.
Sebastian leaned into her. “Can I have a Coke?” he asked, louder than before.
The woman in the tank top frowned, then reached into the Jeep, brought out a bottle, and twisted off the top. Sebastian ran forward to grab it, then ran back to Penny’s side and drank. She wished her mother were here. If Sebastian was low, the Coke would be good, but if he was high, it could make him feel worse.
“Will you give us a ride?” Penny asked.
They were not supposed to get in cars with strangers, but there were five of them. And they were asking for a ride. That seemed to make it safer. And the driver was a woman. You were supposed to ask a woman for help, if you got in trouble. Preferably a mother, but this was who they had. And maybe she was a mother. Although Penny doubted it.
“Okay,” the woman said, waving toward the Jeep.
Penny and Sebastian got in front together. The Jeep had an open top. Isabel looked toward the river and seemed like she might run, then got in the back seat with Marcus and June. The two men with the shovels crouched in the cargo area behind them. The woman reversed the Jeep.
Penny pulled the seatbelt over Sebastian’s bare chest and buckled it over herself, too. “Are you okay?” she asked him.
“I’m a little sleepy.”
“You should stay awake.”
His blond hair was limp and damp on his forehead. Penny pushed it off his face.
“I have to poop,” June said, in the back seat.
“Hold it,” her brother said.
Penny looked back and saw June with her hands clamped on the crotch of her blue swimsuit, Marcus looking anxious beside her.
When she looked out the windshield again, they didn’t seem to be going in the right direction. “We’re going back to that beach, right?” Penny asked.
The woman nodded.
“I don’t think this is the right way.”
“We call them,” the woman said.
“But their cell phones don’t work here.”
“We call the ship.”
“But they aren’t at the ship.”
The Jeep was driving down a paved road among trees, just like the one where the tire had blown up. That seemed like a long time ago now. Would her mother have gone back to the ship?
“I really have to poop,” June said.
“Keep holding it,” her brother said.
“I am!”
The Jeep stopped at a place where another road crossed, and the two men hopped out of the back, leaving the shovels. The woman waved to them. Then the Jeep was climbing a mountain, and a few houses appeared on the side of the road. The road wound and twisted and then a man on a tall white horse was riding toward them. The Jeep slowed. Penny thought she might be imagining the horse, it was so white and bright. But then June whispered, “He’s beautiful,” and Penny knew that the others could see it, too.
The Jeep stopped, and the man on the horse looked down at them. He had dark, frowning eyebrows, and he spoke with the woman in Spanish. It was all too fast to understand. Penny looked to Isabel in the back seat for a translation, but Isabel ducked her chin toward her yellow bikini as if trying not to be seen.
The horse snorted. It had soft nostrils, gray and pink. The man on the horse smiled. His teeth were white and straight. “Welcome,” he said.
“We need insulin,” Penny told him. She felt blinded by embarrassment and confusion, the heat rising to her face. “Insulina. My brother is diabético. Also we need a bathroom.”
“I have to poop!” June said.
“Pues, vámonos,” the man said, turning the horse with the reins, and the Jeep started up the mountain again.

Reading Group Guide

1. Do Not Become Alarmed is about a family that encounters sudden and unexpected danger. What do you think this says about the world around us, and about the way we perceive safety?

2. There is also a global aspect to the book, as the disaster occurs while the families are traveling. How might our countries of origin affect our understanding of safety? As Americans, is there a sense that we live in a bubble, that we are sheltered from many harsh realities?

3. The children in Do Not Become Alarmed vary in age—how do you think they each process the events of the novel, and to what extent does it change them? What do they learn?

4. In turn, what does each parent learn by the end?

5. The novel is about two families of longtime friends. How does their relationship look at the beginning of the book, and how does it look at the end? What has changed? Do you think the difference is permanent?

6. Do Not Become Alarmed is also a novel about marriage. Some marriages hold up in the face of disaster and tragedy, while others do not. What do you think the prognosis is for Liv and Benjamin’s marriage? Or Nora and Raymond’s? What about the Argentine parents, Gunther and Camila?

7. Noemi’s plotline adds a sense of perspective to the book—how do the circumstances of her life differ from those of the American characters? How do her perceptions of danger and survival compare?

8. The book has a happy ending for most of the characters, but not all of them. Discuss the author’s choice to resolve each family’s story the way she does.

9. Do Not Become Alarmed explores many themes—love, relationships, childhood, marriage, infidelity, travel, danger, immigration, and more. Which themes resonated most with you? Why?

Customer Reviews