The Expats by Chris Pavone

Expats CoverThe title alone was intriguing enough. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in southern Africa and the term expat conjured up all kinds of images in my mind—characters from the Serbian road contractor to the Canadian water resources professor and everything in between. In Africa, expats stand out because, quite often, they are white, although the Chinese are giving everyone a run for their money (quite literally, actually).

This story, however, takes place in Luxembourg and the Paris. American expats stick out only because of their missing language skills and, possibly, because of their baseball caps. Skin color doesn’t enter the equation. Kate, Dexter and their two sons show up in Luxembourg on very short notice, because Dexter, a nerdy kind of network security expert who protects banks against hackers, has gotten a job there. Or so he says. Kate is rather surprised. One, because of the short notice, and, two, because she works for the CIA, something Dexter doesn’t know, and must be debriefed before they let her go. And so we’re off to the races.

Kate spends an extraordinary amount of time dressing and undressing the boys, bringing them to kindergarten, picking them up and, in between, having lunch or tea or dinner with a gaggle of nosy, gossipy expat wives. Of course, she is bored out of her mind. If you used to assassinate folks for your government, the housewife life would seem a tad dull to you, too. Especially if your husband is spending all hours of the day at work or on business trips.

New friends show up. Some more suspicious than others. Kate can’t stop imagining nefarious goings-on behind the facade of expat gentility. She even pulls in an old CIA handler to get the dirt on a couple that has given her reason for suspicion. She’s proven right. The couple isn’t a couple, they are FBI agents seconded to Interpol. They are investigating her husband. This is when the story picks up steam and reveals interesting and unforeseen plot twists.

So far so good. Pavone employs the time shift thing, one scene in the present, followed by a slew of scenes taking place a year or so earlier. The effect is jarring, and I didn’t like it. It seemed a bit gimmicky, in part, because the present scenes show Kate and Dexter working together, whereas Kate harbors suspicion against Dexter in the past scenes. So the reader already knows that they’ve patched things up. That takes the mystery out of what happens next. The writing is breezy, the perspective is upper middle class—having lunch at expensive cafés is normal as is jetting to the alps or driving to Amsterdam for the weekend.

Does Pavone capture the voice of Kate, from whose POV the story is told? I kept thinking about that. This is a guy writing from the perspective of a woman. Sure, it can be done. I don’t doubt that for a moment. Did he succeed? I think so. It helps that Kate is an ex-CIA assassin. So the rational calculations with which she pursues her path seem to fit her persona. Still, I felt there was something missing. Can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s good, but not great.

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