The Expats

Cobblestones and ham sandwiches

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 20.04.2012

A silhouette of our capital city on the cover of an American thriller! The Expats, Chris Pavone’s first novel, is set in Luxembourg, where the author lived as a stay-at-home dad for a year and a half while his wife worked at the European headquarters of Amazon.

So even if spy novels are not your cup of tea, you might want to read the book for the portrait it draws of lovely Luxembourg. As you would expect, there is the murky world of secret bank accounts and money laundering (“This whole economy is based on secrecy.”), but there is also a nuanced down-to-earth evocation of what an expat life feels like: seemingly endless coffee mornings at the sports centre in Kockelscheuer, dinner at an award-winning restaurant, a boozy American Embassy Christmas party (“We’ve been here two years, feels like twenty.”) and lots of shopping trips to either Cactus or Auchan…

Most of the details ring an instant bell: the non-descript buildings on the “charmless” Boulevard Royal, the “richly swagged curtains” at the Grand Ducal Palace, the ubiquitous stern-looking faces behind shop counters, the good butcher’s in the centre of town… And then, if ever the Grand Duke picks up this book, he will discover that his palace yard is perfect territory for a sniper shot. It is the one thing the CIA and the FBI seem to agree on!

The novel has clearly been written by someone who has lived here. Pavone chooses to reverse roles though, as his central character is Kate Moore, a covert CIA operative who gives her fifteen-year career up when Dexter, her computer-geek husband, accepts a lucrative job in Luxembourg. Leaving Washington comes as a relief to Kate, who has long been feeling guilty about spending too little quality time with her two young sons. She is ready to embrace this European adventure, choosing family over work. But as soon as her family have settled in, she feels an emptiness she never experienced before. How could the pirate ship playground be a match for the perilous missions that used to be central to her life? Her husband’s increasing secretiveness and constant travelling do not help. Neither does the fact that she has never revealed to him what her job back home actually was.

There are secrets within secrets, plots within plots, which leads to a lot of double-crossing, especially when Kate and Dexter become friends with Julia and Bill Maclean, an American couple who are different from the regular run of expats. It soon appears that each of these four characters has an agenda of their own.

Unfortunately though, the thriller part of the plot is somewhat clumsy. The opening chapters are flooded with hints at whatever detail or behaviour should look suspicious. You wonder why Pavone does not trust his readers a bit more. They won’t give up even if they don’t know where exactly the plot will be taking them next… After all, curiosity killed the cat, not the reader. As it is, the actual unravelling of what feels like a stockpile of secrets is laborious and formulaic in structure. Time and again you think that mysteries have been solved only for another surprise revelation to be sprung on you. Thus, reading the final one hundred pages becomes a rather tiring exercise.

The best passages in The Expats deal with Kate’s professional past, with moments that still haunt her and will never go away: judgements made under great pressure, sloppy research into a criminal’s life… The long debriefing sessions she has to undergo before she is allowed to leave the Central Intelligence Agency suggest how intricate it all is.

If, however, riveting suspense rather than character is your top priority when choosing books, A D Miller’s Snowdrops, a novel set in contemporary Moscow, is a much better bet. Crisp, sleek and disturbing, it is impossible to put down. An almost perfect cocktail of local colour and cold-blooded crime.

Chris Pavone, The Expats, Crown Publishers (ISBN 978-0-307-96706-8); A.D. Miller, Snowdrops, Atlantic Books (ISBN 978-1-84887-453-4).
Janine Goedert
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