As a serial expat myself and a big fan of thrillers, I had high expectations of Chris Pavone’s debut novel ‘The Expats’ and it did not disappoint.
The story in a nutshell: Katherine is a typical American expat in Luxembourg, dissatisfied with her life, missing her sense of purpose and past career, but unsure what she wants. Or is she? Her husband Dexter is a good-natured computer geek working on security issues for banks. Or is he? They meet an attractive, yet strangely mismatched childless American couple, who seem keen to befriend them. Or are they? Well, as it turns out, no one is quite what they seem in this page-turner, with more plot twists than I have had coffees. I woke up during the night and adjourned to the guestroom to finish reading it, which is unusual behaviour indeed.
The obvious first twist is that the job that Katherine had to give up in order to follow her husband abroad was as a CIA agent, a job that was becoming insufferable to her, but about which her family knew nothing. Eager to start a new life and reinvent herself, Katherine becomes Kate, a trailing spouse and full-time Mom, while Dexter… remains esentially Dexter, but spends less and less time at home. The author captures perfectly the frustrations of someone being plonked into a new life, new environment, new culture, with no support or language skills.
The action moves swiftly between three time frames – present-day Paris, the past (Kate’s career in the CIA and the memory of a personal vendetta and assassination which haunts her) and the chronology of their move to Luxembourg. The switch between time-frames is generally handled with great skill, even for someone like myself, who does not hugely enjoy flashbacks. Towards the end, however, the scene changes become so rapid-fire that it got a little confusing (or maybe I shouldn’t have read it at 4 a.m.).
Pavone is masterful at conveying the everyday boredom, challenges and frustrations of expat life, as well as local atmosphere, with just a few well-chosen phrases or details. One short scene that will sound very familiar to all those who have moved abroad is the hunt for bleach to get rid of – no, not blood, but hard watermarks on the bathroom walls. ‘Start to finish, it took her two hours to buy a four-euro cleaning product.’
It’s throwaway remarks like this, coupled with deadly accurate observations, that make reading this book such a pleasure. Here’s a description of the international school Moms waiting for their children at pick-up time. ‘Individual roving Russians and Czechs and Poles, hoping to attach themselves to Western Europe, ingratiating, firm-handshaking, trying to get invited to join the EU, ignorant – willfully? – of the universal futility of trying to get invited to anything, ever.’
An insightful comment on bravery: ‘It had never occurred to her that there were strong women everywhere, living mundane lives that didn’t involve carrying weapons amid desperate men on the fringes of third-world wars, but instead calmly taking injured children to hospitals, far from home…
Or a succinct description of shopping: ‘Kate’s bag was now overflowing with her attempt to purchase normalcy for herself…’
One or two of his observations cut so close to the bone that I winced. ‘Kate can’t deny that she still wants something more… She’s never going to be one of those women who opens a children’s shoe store or a home-décor boutique… She’s not going to wander around with a Bristol pad and a box of pastels; nor with a laptop, pecking away at a pointless novel… ‘ That’s me told off then! This is no cosy mystery writing, but a ruthless dissection of life choices and of what happens in a relationship, the friction lines that appear when trust begins to fail.
This is a very assured debut novel, and my one caveat is this. Given that Pavone has such an excellent eye for details and an ability to sum up a whole lifestyle or heartache in a withering observation, why does he sometimes get lost in an overlong, meandering sentence? Take this for example:
‘The same orange container that had departed her curbside in D.C. two months ago, where she’d stood alone in that other empty house, papers signed attesting that everything was packed and loaded and attached to a black cab gaudily decorated with neon outlines of impossibly busty women, bound for the port of Baltimore to be loaded onto the freighter Osaka to cross the Atlantic in eleven days to Antwerp, then to be attached to a cab owned by a Dutch freight company, an undecorated white cab that was pulling around the corner right nbow, here, in front of this empty apartment, and she was alone again while her husband was working at the same job on a different continent, and her children were in school learning the same things, and the stuff in the container was the same, and the big differences being where she was and who she was.’
I can understand the stylistic device of piling on the details, conveying her rising sense of helplessness and frustration, but this occurs a bit too frequently, sometimes at action-packed moments when shorter sentences might have been called for. This is perhaps the only indication that it is indeed a debut novel, but it’s a small niggle for a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and wished I had written myself. Oh, that and why the awful pink alternative cover on Amazon? Compare the two (above and here) and let me know which one you think is more appropriate.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see a man about a Beretta…