This novel focuses on three families taking a two-week cruise over Christmas from Los Angeles down the coast of Mexico and Central America. Two of the families are American: adults Liv and Nora are close cousins, and Liv proposed the trip to help Nora get over the recent death of her mother. Their children are close as well: Liv and Benjamin are the parents of Sebastian, 8, and Penny, 11. Nora is married to Raymond, and their children are June, 6, and Marcus, aged 11. On board ship, both parents and adults befriend an Argentinean family, the parents Gunter and Camila, and kids Hector, 15, and Isabel, 14. The kids are all close enough in age that they hang out together.
Very early into the story, the families go on an excursion – the three men golfing, and the three women and six kids on a zipline adventure. But the van for the zipline trip breaks down, and the kids ends up swimming in a nearby river instead. It happens that the mothers are not paying attention, however, when the kids get swept away by a change in the tide.
The parents enlist local authorities as well as their embassy representatives to try to find their children. There is added pressure to find them fast (if indeed they are still alive) because Sebastian has diabetes: he can’t survive for long without his insulin, which of course he left behind to go in the water.
Liv, the primary narrator, is convinced she has been cursed by fate:
“The karmic bus had mowed her down. She was being punished for living in a false world, spongy and insulated from the reality around her. For living in a house with an alarm system, in a neighborhood where the only Latinos were gardeners and day laborers. For sending her kids to a private school that was almost entirely white in a city that wasn’t.”
In alternate chapters we learn about what is happening with the kids, who fall into the hands of drug dealers after they witness something they should not have. The children are now in graver peril than they had been in the water, and their situation goes downhill fast.
Meanwhile, all the parents are turning on each other, displacing guilt, blame, anger, and frustration. Some nationalist resentment plays a role as well, with Gunther musing:
“He had come to despise the American parents, who thought nothing terrible could happen to them, even in these days of debt and war and warming seas, much of it visited on the world by their own rich, childish country.”
And in fact, Gunther has a point in a meta sense as well. There is an uncomfortable amount of negative stereotyping by the author about the people and events encountered in Latin America by the North American families. Moreover, the North Americans are spared from the worst repercussions of what happened, unlike the South Americans.
As the hours pass, the tension level picks up, and we don’t know until close to the very end who will make it, and who will not, and in what condition if they do survive.
Discussion: In reading this book I was reminded of the complaints in reviews one often sees that pose the question, why is it that primarily people of color or gays or other minorities suffer the worse consequences in movies, tv shows, and books? Along those lines, in this book there were also two side characters- illegal migrants – who mainly seemed to be there not only to add to the “red herring” element but also to hit the rest of the South American stereotype buttons.
The scenes involving the children and drug dealers did not seem to me to be well-written. The dialogue was a bit caricatured (as were the bad guys) and the laconic reactions of the children didn’t seem all that realistic.
In fact, none of the characters were all that fleshed out. We didn’t really know who the American parents were, besides that they were shallow and overly concerned with their self-images. The Argentinean parents were so underdrawn it was almost astounding. In fact, in the critical moment of the book, when the kids go missing, we are only told why the two American moms didn’t see the kids disappear. The Argentinean mom was with them, but what about her? She wasn’t worth talking about, it seems.
Even the bad things that happened are taken more seriously as they applied to the Americans. Benjamin’s self-centered regrets about the trip show no awareness of, or compassion about, the suffering of the Argentineans, who continue to be mostly ignored by the author. Benjamin, feeling unjustly burdened, muses:
“So now they would all have to reenter their life, carrying this beast they’d picked up on vacation: a hulking creature of reproach, grief, fear, guilt, and untoward luck, shaggily cloaked in the world’s lurid interest.”
Overall, to the extent that we got a glimpse into who the characters were, few of them were likable. Who were they before this? We don’t really know, and we aren’t inspired to want to know. The plot and the people in the story mostly seemed to validate the observation of Liv’s mother, a lawyer:
“Civilization, her mother had told her since was small, was a series of agreements about what was good for everyone, enforced by law. And civilization was only a thin veneer over the savagery and greed that were the human default.”
Evaluation: In spite of the parts I disliked about this book, it definitely is a page-turner, and would make a great choice for book clubs, where members would no doubt have lively discussions dissecting the parents’ reactions.
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017