Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: The Expats by Chris Pavone

Kate Moore has lived a life steeped in duplicity. She was both a loving wife and mother -- and a ruthless CIA agent. Her oblivious husband, Dexter, knows nothing of his wife's career; as long as they've known each other, he has believed that she toils away at a boring government desk job. Somehow the time never seemed right for her to divulge information about her life as a secret agent, and at this point it's become impossible for her to admit the years of lies.

Dexter comes home one evening and offers her a chance to start over. A way to step away from her life as a spy and begin again as the woman she has long posed as: a loving wife to him, a caring mother for their two boys. The family moves to Luxembourg, a tiny country in western Europe that lies between Belguim, France, and Germany. Although just under a thousand square miles total, the country prides itself on being one of the most highly developed countries in the world. It also has a reputation for being a tax haven, due to its somewhat lax banking laws.

Kate resigns from the CIA, Dexter accepts a job in banking securities, and the family settles into life in Luxembourg. The circle of expats in the country is rather large, and Kate finds herself befriended by other young mothers and American wives displaced by their husbands' jobs. For a while -- a week, perhaps -- things move along smoothly. Then Kate meets Julia, an American recently replanted in Luxembourg. As Dexter begins to see more and more of Ben, Julia's husband, and as the couple spends time together dining and drinking, Kate begins to become suspicious of the duo. Are they really who they seem? Are thoughts to the contrary only a result of Kate's years as a spy? Or perhaps a symptom of her boredom without her career?

Chris Pavone takes on a difficult task in The Expats: that of a male author penning a genuine female protagonist. While most of the novel reads fairly smoothly, Pavone trips a few times in this first effort. Julia is a highly intelligent, previously ruthless spy. However, she seems entirely flummoxed at times by her children and husband. Likewise, sometimes she seems too skilled to be believable. She somehow manages to dart in and out of her old spy's life when she becomes suspicious of Julia and Ben, holding clandestine meetings all over Europe without so much as a blink from her husband.

Her suspicions begin to seem like the ravings of a paranoid madwoman at some points in the novel. Pavone does an excellent job of keeping the reader in the dark, never knowing fully if there is reason for Kate to be suspicious of the American couple or if she is losing it entirely. While this isn't particularly flattering for the main character, it is an effective trick of plot, one that causes this debut to become quite the page-turner. The novel kept me up late two nights in a row, and pushed me to complete it in under 48 hours, primarily so that I could learn how it all ended. Pavone is a master of suspense in this first novel. Although some scenes and characters seemed off, overall The Expats is an excellent debut.

The Expats is Chris Pavone's first novel. He has worked for twenty years in the publishing industry as an editor, primarily of cookbooks. He also created The Wine Log, a tasting journal with some background information on wines and a glossary of terms. The web abounds with rumors that the novel will be made into a film; it almost seems to be written for this purpose, and will make a wonderful spy movie if the rumors are true. To read an excerpt of the novel, visit Pavone's website.

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