Maile Meloy is the author of Liars and Saints, A Family Daughter, and the YA Apothecary trilogy. Her latest novel, Do Not Become Alarmed was published by Penguin on 6 July 2017.
Penguin have kindly given me permission to share an extract from Do Not Become Alarmed with you today.
A voice came over the loudspeaker, right into the cabin, announcing
the lifeboat drill.
“What’s that?” June asked.
Their stewardess put her head in the open door. Her name was
Perla and she was tiny, her black hair parted in the middle. She
showed them where to find the blocky orange foam life preservers in
the closet, and pointed out their muster station on the ship’s plan.
“Do we have to get in the lifeboats?” Sebastian asked.
“No,” Perla said, laughing. “They only show you.”
The two families headed down the carpeted stairs, past crew members
on the landings. In the muster station in the Yacht Club bar, a
graceful young man with a microphone—a dancer?—explained the
emergency procedure. All the other passengers seemed to be eighty.
There were no other children. Penny and Sebastian feigned agonized
drowning, and Junie skipped across the carpet. The old people smiled
warily at them. Marcus sat beside his parents.
“I’m hungry,” Penny said. “This is taking too long.”
Liv smoothed Penny’s chestnut hair. Her child of appetite and
“I shouldn’t be thinking about Titanic, right?” Raymond said,
clicking the buckle over his chest.
“Yes, you should,” Nora told him. “Think about how not to die if
Benjamin said, “You know the orange life jackets and the lights are
just for finding bodies.”
“I think that’s on airplanes,” Liv said.
“It’s unlikely that we’ll sink,” Marcus said.
“I know, babe,” Nora told her son. “We’re joking.”
The emergency signal sounded, and Marcus clapped his hands
over his ears, digging his fingers into his curls.
“Sorry!” Nora said, pressing her hands over his. “It’ll be over
soon.” Seven short blasts of the horn and one long one. Then they
Liv checked the glucose monitor on Sebastian’s waistband. “Let’s
go to the buffet.”
“It’s open?” Nora asked.
“It’s always open, I think.”
“I’ll go unpack,” Benjamin said, which meant he wanted a nap.
Raymond wanted to check out the gym. The men carried everyone’s
life jackets away.
On the walk to the buffet, Nora linked her arm through Liv’s and
put her head on her shoulder, making Liv feel excessively tall. “I love
you,” Nora said. “This was a genius idea.”
The children took trays and each got exactly what they wanted:
Chinese noodles for Penny, chicken fingers for Sebastian, nori rolls
for Marcus, taquitos for June. Watching them eat, Liv felt her mind
relax, easing its calculation. Feeding children, even when you had all
available resources, took so much planning and forethought. The
low-grade anxiety about the next meal started when you were cleaning
up the last. But for two weeks there would never be any question
about what was for dinner, or lunch, or snack. That roving hunter-
gatherer part of her brain, which sucked a lot of power and made
the other lights dim—she could just turn it off.
The trip had been Liv’s idea. Nora’s mother died of pancreatic
cancer in early summer: swift and painful. After the death, Nora had
been flattened by waves of sadness, sobbing jags where she couldn’t
breathe or speak. Her mother had been problematic, borderline,
sometimes absent. When they were eight, she’d sent Nora to live
with Liv’s family, because her new husband didn’t want children
around. The cousins had shared a bedroom for two years, until the
new marriage failed and the prodigal mother came back. Nora had
always been wry about her mother’s flakiness, and trenchant about
motherhood in general. No one had predicted that the loss would hit
her so hard.
Nora had called Liv in October in despair about Christmas plans.
She didn’t want to go to Philadelphia to stay with Raymond’s parents
when she felt like such a mess. She didn’t want to be with Liv’s parents,
the adoptive family of her abandoned childhood. And she didn’t
want to be home in LA, where the clear blue skies and the empty
freeways would make her feel even more isolated and exposed. She
wanted to be with family but not with family. She wanted to have
Christmas but not have it feel like Christmas.
Liv was pragmatic, a problem-solver. She got it from her mother,
a flinty Colorado litigator. She believed in finding a third way, when
the options seemed intolerable, and she believed in throwing money
at problems, when it was possible. She found a two-week cruise down
the coast of Mexico and Central America, poking into the Panama
Canal long enough to watch the locks work—bait for her engineer
husband—and then heading north to LA again. It would be just the
two families, Liv and Nora and their husbands and kids. They
wouldn’t have to fly, they could board in San Pedro. Raymond was
between movies, and Liv’s office was deserted over Christmas. Benjamin
could make his own schedule as long as he kept pace on his
projects. They could all take Nora away.
“You always said cruises were tacky,” Benjamin said when Liv
“They are,” she said.
“And an environmental nightmare.”
“That’s why it’s such a good idea,” she said. “My parents won’t
want to go because of fossil fuels and norovirus. Your parents want to
go to Cuba. So no hurt feelings. It will be just us, and it will be different.
It’s just what Nora wants.”
“And the fossil fuels?”
She felt a little shudder of guilt. “The ship is going anyway?”
Benjamin said yes, and Liv called Nora, who started to cry again,
and then they went online to look at cabins.
The kids would have each other to play with, their second cousins.
When Nora had been crying on Liv’s couch over the summer, she
was also worrying about Marcus. At five he’d known every country
and every capital in the world. (Penny, at the same age, had known
Colorado, Disneyland, and Santa Monica, where her modern dance
class was.) Certain things, like the emergency horn, were intolerable
to Marcus, but he didn’t meet all the parameters for a diagnosis. Nora
had been looking for a school that would understand her son’s
strengths and his difficulties. Raymond wanted one where there
might be other black kids. Liv had talked them into trying Penny and
Sebastian’s school. It was small, progressive, and at least working on
diversity. Their late application was accepted, and Marcus seemed
happy there. His teacher created a special geography project for him,
and let him read what he wanted.
So now Penny and Marcus were in sixth grade at the same school,
and they would grow up together almost as their mothers had. For
most of history, the two sets of children would have been betrothed
to each other from birth, and Liv would have been happy with that.
Sebastian and June adored each other like two puppies, even though
June was younger. Sebastian, sweet-tempered and pliable, could
grow up and be drawn in by some damaged girl who would blame
him for her pain. Liv would have loved to promise him to funny, curious
June, and seal it now.
At the buffet table, Nora studied the ship’s schedule. There was an
evening movie in the Kids’ Club, one of the Madagascar sequels. The
ship started to move, and the children ran out on deck and leaned on
the varnished honey-colored rail. The bow thrusters churned the
blue water white against the dock. Liv hoped Benjamin was watching
from the balcony. It was majestic, the stately movement out of San
Pedro, the lacy trail of wake behind them, the tiny boats below.
When they were out to sea and had explored the ship—skirting
the clanging casino and gaping at the terrible paintings for sale, of
martinis and cars—the kids settled in to watch the movie. The chaperones
seemed reasonably sane. A New Zealander named Deb promised
to sit near Sebastian in case his monitor went off, and Liv and
Nora went to change for a grown-up dinner.
When she got back to the cabin, Benjamin was stretched out on
top of the bedcovers, waking up from his nap. “Wait, so we can just
shunt them off to the Kids’ Club?” he asked.
“And they’re fine with it?”
“They’re watching animated animals. They don’t love us that
“Oh my God,” Benjamin said, rubbing his hands in his hair. “This
About the book
When Liv and Nora decide to take their husbands and children on a holiday cruise, everyone is thrilled. The ship’s comforts and possibilities seem infinite. But when they all go ashore in beautiful Central America, a series of minor mishaps lead the families further from the ship’s safety.
One minute the children are there, and the next they’re gone.
What follows is a heart-racing story told from the perspectives of the adults and the children, as the distraught parents – now turning on one another and blaming themselves – try to recover their children and their shattered lives.
Read more on the Penguin website.
About the author
Maile Meloy is the author of the novels Liars and Saints (which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and chosen for the Richard and Judy book club) and A Family Daughter, the short-story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, and the award-winning Apothecary trilogy for young readers. She has received the PEN/Malamud Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was chosen as one of Granta‘s Best Young American Novelists. She lives in Los Angeles.