Book Review: Chris Pavone’s The Expats

Can a former CIA assassin be happy as a stay-at-home mom, without losing her soul?

Chris Pavone’s debut novel was written in the cafés of Luxembourg | Photo:

Secrets Domestic and Foreign

If Jane Austen were alive today and wrote a thriller, it might be something like The Expats, whose heroine, Kate Moore, is a former CIA operative. Like Austen, author Chris Pavone bypasses contemporary political issues and focuses on more intimate intrigues in this debut novel. National security is not at stake in The Expats. Rather, it is Kate’s domestic security that is under threat.

Kate is married to Dexter, a guileless IT systems security expert who managed to miss out on the Internet boom, “a man who harbored no secrets, and didn’t admit the possibility that other people did.” In many respects, they are a typical middle-class couple, struggling to balance kids and careers, and wondering how they can finance repairs to their dilapidated house in a non-gentrifying section of Washington, D.C. Dexter has no inkling about Kate’s career; he thinks she’s a State Department analyst. Nor does Kate know much about Dexter’s work. If she never asks him about his job, she reasons, he won’t ask her about hers.

One day, out of the blue, Dexter proposes that they chuck their D.C. life and move to Luxembourg, where a bank has offered him a lucrative job in cybersecurity. Kate is first astounded but then intrigued by his proposal. She would be forced to quit her job, for which admittedly she has lost her enthusiasm. She could spend more time with their two young sons. And she would no longer need to deceive Dexter. Although “nobody dreams of living in Luxembourg,” Kate agrees to go.

But can a CIA operative, trained in the arts of deception, espionage and yes, assassination, find contentment as a stay-at-home mom? How tightly is Kate’s profession entwined with her identity? Can she recreate herself as a full-time wife and mother?

Kate struggles to adjust to her new life in Luxembourg. Pavone paints a vivid picture of this charming, anachronistic state, the only surviving sovereign grand duchy in the world, where understated luxury discreetly signals the country’s wealth. Luxembourg City was once one of Europe’s strongest citadels – “Hundreds of miles of tunnels ran beneath the city, some of them large enough for horses, furniture, suited-up regiments,” Pavone writes – whereas today, it is one of the world’s last tax havens and a hiding place for the dirty money of dictators, drug traffickers and cyber-thieves. Pavone, who was an expatriate spouse in Luxembourg, knows the local scene well, conveying both the joys and the petty annoyances of expat life in Europe, where the drugstores only sell drugs and no one uses artificial sweetener in their coffee.

With Dexter working long hours and the children in school, Kate is lonely and bored. In her first weeks in Luxembourg, she becomes an expert at IKEA furniture assembly. She plans weekend trips for the family to “explore Europe”. She cleans up after the kids and cooks dinners that Dexter too often misses. She studies French.

In an effort to make friends, Kate endures countless lunches and coffees with other expatriate women, bored stiff by “all these mothers, all these ex-lawyers and ex-teachers, ex-psychiatrists and ex-publicists” debating the finer points of bikini waxes and speculating on who’s sleeping with whom. Although Pavone doesn’t get every female behavior or reaction right, many of his observations are spot on. He recognizes that many expat women are almost as dependent on their husbands for economic security and social status as Jane Austen’s heroines. He touches on the sacrifice of careers and even identities that some of these women make. He also captures the subtle and precarious balance of honesty and deception that holds many marriages together.

On a “blind date” lunch set up by an American women’s group, Kate meets Julia, a former interior decorator from Chicago, whose husband, Bill, does “something in finance I don’t understand.” The two women tentatively connect, taking the first steps toward friendship over salads and wine.

Yet something about Julia doesn’t sit right with Kate; Julia is too smoothly evasive about the details of her pre-Luxembourg life. Kate’s antennae start twitching. Out of curiosity, boredom, or perhaps professional habit, she begins to investigate Julia and Bill’s backgrounds.

Meanwhile, Dexter and Bill have become tennis partners. Kate senses that Julia and Bill are insinuating themselves into their lives. She grows more suspicious—and fearful. Why are they really in Luxembourg?  Could they be after her?

Because Kate has a dangerous secret. Years earlier, she killed a Mexican political thug who threatened her family. In protecting her own children, Kate killed an innocent bystander. As far as Kate knows, no one, not even the CIA, is aware of her involvement in the murders, which continue to haunt her. But she can’t be sure.

Kate will do anything to keep her past from destroying her family. She steps up her investigation, determined to find out the truth about Julia and Bill. As Kate processes every new bit of information and tests out theories, the reader is right there with her, trying to piece together the puzzle. It’s a gripping game, with countless twists and turns and blind alleys.

At times The Expats does require the suspension of belief. The characters’ clunky back stories (and motivations) don’t always ring true, so when the denouement unwinds in the novel’s final pages, it seems implausible. Some of the language is hackneyed, such as in Kate’s increasingly angst-ridden internal monologues, and her character has inconsistencies.

For a former undercover operative, Kate sometimes seems too starry-eyed or nonplussed by aspects of expat life. At other times she doesn’t react like a woman; when Dexter could easily notice she’s been snooping, Kate throws a blanket over the evidence rather than distracting him with flirtation.

But on the whole, The Expats is a satisfying entertainment, especially for anyone who has  experienced the pleasures and frustrations of European expatriate life.

The Expats
by Chris Pavone
Random House (2012)
pp. 336          

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