Maile Meloy's Do Not Become Alarmed: When bad things happen to bad people 

What happens when two pairs of loathsome, self-involved, over-privileged American parents take a cruise to Central America and then lose track of their young children? Do Not Become Alarmed, Helena-born author Maile Meloy's third novel (for adults) takes on that question. The answer isn't pretty.

Two married couples and their four children leave Southern California en route to Panama during Christmas vacation. The two women are cousins who grew up together, and their children range in age from 6 to 11. The trip starts out well enough, with everyone getting along and having a good time, but when the families decide to go ashore in an unnamed Central American country, things unravel quickly.

The two men go golfing with another passenger, a wealthy Argentinian of German descent. The Argentinian's wife and her two children accompany the two American women and their children on an outing to go zip-lining. Then their van breaks down and the group hikes to a beach to keep cool while waiting for a replacement vehicle. One of the American women sneaks off into the jungle to get it on with the sexy tour guide while the other American and the Argentinian watch the six kids playing in the water on floating tubes. Both women fall asleep, the tide changes, and before anyone realizes it the children have been swept into a river and into the jungle. Whether and how all parties are ultimately reunited is the heart of Meloy's book.

Do Not Become Alarmed is told from the perspectives of multiple members of a large ensemble cast, and it can be a little confusing at first. But the roving perspectives also help maintain the breathless pace of the narrative. It's what makes thrillers thrilling, what inspires the reader to read "just one more chapter!" before turning out the light. Meloy has a deft and clever hand at maintaining suspense, and that's the book's strong suit.

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To say that the two couples at the forefront of this story are terrible characters isn't a knock on Meloy's portrayal. It's a compliment. They're depicted with such skill—their utter disconnect from the world beyond their experience, and their above-average competence in the tiny world of their own comfort zone—that every time I set the book aside I felt anxiety from having spent time with them. They're capable of nothing more than generating wealth within a very specific set of upper-middle-class parameters, but they flail hysterically when things go sideways in a foreign environment. There are few redeeming qualities to be found in any of them, but Meloy delivers a fascinating peek into their minds. I hoped the entire bunch would end up in the belly of a crocodile by novel's end.

But while Meloy develops her leads in all their unpleasant glory, not everyone in Do Not Become Alarmed gets so thorough a treatment. In the case of the minor characters, the depiction of wealthy American arrogance comes off without much nuance. In fact, most of the many characters are drawn a little thinly, as if each represents a single element of what might otherwise add up to a multifaceted individual.

Finally, and at the risk of giving away too much plot—stop reading now if you'd rather not know—there's the matter of a scene depicting the rape of a teenage girl about midway through the story. It's well-enough foreshadowed that readers can see it coming, but I was still put off when it arrived. The scene is used to advance the story in a fairly significant way, but, even so, it struck me as heavy-handed and unnecessary. The villains are already plenty villainous, the characters are already in a seemingly insurmountable pickle and the stakes are already high. To deploy a rape scene in this fashion seems like checking a box on a list of terrible things to put a character through. These characters, as awful as they may be, are put through enough.

Maile Meloy reads from Do Not Become Alarmed at Shakespeare & Co. Wed., June 28, at 7 PM.

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