I met Maile Meloy around the time Miley Cyrus was going into the first grade, a point I make only because their first names are pronounced the same way and now you’ll always remember. I knew Maile before she’d published her first book, before she’d had her first story in The New Yorker, and the thing that has always struck me is how good she is at anything she puts her mind to. She was on the U.S. Women’s Kayak Polo team and traveled to other countries with a small boat. She can ride a horse, install door hardware, speak Spanish, fly on a trapeze, solve IT problems, edit a manuscript (I have greatly benefited from her talent in this category), and teach a kid to read. She’s the person everyone wants to sit next to at a dinner party. She’s also a magnificent friend. She could have done anything she wanted to do with her life, and the fact that she decided to be a writer is our good fortune.
As a writer, she keeps proving that there’s nothing she can’t do. Her two story collections, Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (a title that’s particularly applicable to her personality), are pretty much peerless, so surely she’s a short story writer at heart. Three of her stories were made into the movie Certain Women, and two more were made into one-act operas, and she read a Christmas story on This American Life in December that was not what anyone expected at Christmas. Go to The New Yorker and look up her story “Madame Lazarus,” which may well be my favorite story ever.
I would definitely say that she’s a short story writer, but then how can I explain how good her novels are? Liars and Saints was followed by A Family Daughter, which is a novel about Liars and Saints. It’s a hall of mirrors, a bit of brilliance I’d never seen before. It turns out she’s a novelist, too.
But maybe those definitions were too constricting, because as soon as I came to terms with the fact that Maile was both a novelist and short story writer in equal measure, she took a hard turn into the world of middle-grade fiction, writing a series of three fat illustrated books for kids — The Apothecary, The Apprentices, and The After-Room — books that are great enough to satisfy a young reader who’s finished all of Harry Potter.
So then what? A book of poetry? A Broadway musical? Anything would be possible, but what she came up with surprised me. I’m pretty sure that what Maile has written is a blockbuster, a bestseller, the hot book of summer. Do Not Become Alarmed is too well-written to be written off as a mere thriller, yet it’s undeniably thrilling. It’s the story of two families, old friends, who decide to take a cruise and wind up losing their children. That’s big, and still the book is bigger than that: it’s a novel about race and class, poverty and privilege, marriage and desire, and the quest to be a perfect parent while still being yourself. It’s a book filled with rage and guilt in which the most casual actions have lasting consequences. Maile knows how to get the reader’s adrenaline pumping, but she also assumes the reader is as smart and complicated and curious as she is, which, if you knew Maile, you’d realize was a very generous assumption.
I feel a deep connection to this book, in part because it was written by one of my closest friends, and in part because its origins can be traced back to a conversation the two of us had in Australia in 2011: we were both obsessed with the Robert Hughes’ novel A High Wind in Jamaica, and while we were talking about it we decided we both wanted to write a book in which children are in peril without realizing they’re in peril. That’s where I got the idea for Commonwealth, and that’s where she got the idea for Do Not Become Alarmed. Essentially, we wrote two books with the same root.
There’s going to be a lot to talk about.
So come to Parnassus and meet Maile next Tuesday, June 13, 2017, at 6:30 p.m. We’ll be having a conversation about the book Marie Claire (and everyone else) is calling “this summer’s undoubtable smash hit.” It’s also a First Editions Club pick for June. Trust me, it’s going to be huge.
See you soon. -Ann