By Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
Marital disharmony meets spy thriller in Luxembourg in the fantastic debut novel, The Expats by Chris Pavone. I want to create a new genre for this book – domestic thriller, with the word domestic representing the idea of household. But would you automatically frame images about children, diapers, and strained peas, husbands working late, wives having affairs and carpools? Would that turn you against the book? Perhaps The Expats falls in the category of literary thriller. Even though the story is set against the backdrop of a couple struggling with the truth in their marriage, one or possibly both are spies. Maybe this is a book that is impossible to categorize!
“The sheer amount of bombshell plot twists are nothing short of extraordinary, but it’s Pavone’s portrayal of Kate and her quest to find meaning in her charade of an existence that makes this book such a powerful read.”
In The Expats Kate is an ex-CIA agent; her husband Dexter is an average guy with a superlative talent – the ability to hack into anything. He has always used this skill legally, until now, maybe. Kate was a CIA agent when she and Dexter met; he didn’t know. He didn’t know when he married her. And thinking she is keeping Dexter and their two children out of harm’s way, she has always maintained that she is a government ‘researcher’ in Washington, DC.
One evening Dexter comes home from work, always the affable, stable, kind of nerdy guy that Kate loves, and says he has been offered the job of a lifetime with a large bank in Luxembourg. Although reluctant to move oversees, Kate sees it as an opportunity to shed her undercover, secretive life and start over; to be a full-time mother to their children and escape her past. She resigns from the CIA. As an extra measure she changes her name from Katherine (nickname: Kat) to Kate and assumes her husband’s last name. She becomes Kate Moore, an expat, living in Luxembourg, just one more stay-at-home Mom adjusting to life in another country.
Once in Luxembourg, however, Dexter’s habits change. He is rarely home, working outrageous hours and travelling all over Europe. Kate is suspicious and confused and when she questions him, he becomes very cagey, giving evasive answers.
Kate becomes friends with other expat wives and struggles to enjoy a life without work. As hard as she tries to embrace this new life, she is often bored and lonely. She soon meets Julia Maclean, a new arrival from Ohio and they begin a tentative friendship, tentative because Kate doesn’t trust her.
Suspicious of the Macleans and increasingly wondering what Dexter is up to, Kate contacts a close friend from her CIA life, known only as Hayden. It’s all very clandestine and he does confirm her suspicions about Julia and her husband, Bill. They are not what they appear to be. But what are they up to?
Hayden shrugged, screwed up his face in a way that suggested he had an opinion he was reluctant to share.
“And what about the false names?” Kate asked.
“Please. Who doesn’t have a false name?”
“Normal bankers moving to Luxembourg, that’s who.” Kate was losing patience; Hayden didn’t seem willing to admit even a possibility that these people were killers. “I’ve know quite a few assassins in my time.”
“So have I.”
“And you know that this is how they operate; this is what they do.”
In fact, this is exactly what they’d done when Kate hired a team to take out a Salvadoran general.
This is a clever novel with clever characters. Of the four main characters – Kate, Dexter, Julia and Bill – we wonder who is telling the truth. Kate is our sole narrator and we trust what she is telling us. Other voices interrupt the narrative briefly in flashback and foreshadowing. I love this plot device, as I love it in most mysteries, if it is well done. And Pavone does it beautifully. I ate up every page wondering what clues would be revealed, hoping against hope that Dexter and Kate, whom I have grown very fond of, not only remain together but are innocent of any crimes.
This brilliantly written, page-turning novel is well worth reading this summer. I predict you will devour it and continue to ruminate about it long after you close the back cover.
Chris Pavone grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Cornell. For nearly two decades he was a book editor and ghostwriter; he is also the author of the Wine Log. Chris and his family have lived in Luxembourg but recently returned to New York City. The Expats is his first novel.