The Expats by Chris Pavone – Book Review

expats_coverFun, fast read for the summer; part spy thriller, part domestic drama.

Kate and Dexter are a couple with two small children living in Washington D.C.; she works for the government and he’s a specialist in electronic banking security, who one day gets a lucrative offer to work for a bank in Luxembourg, of all places. So they move to Europe and now Kate finds her days filled with endless housecleaning, playdates, and coffee and gossip with the other expat wives, while her husband works long hours and takes barely any participation in the family life. Soon, Kate gets suspicious about her husband’s absences, and feels that things aren’t quite right with the American couple they made friends with. There’s a good reason for her disquiet other than sheer boredom – Kate is an ex-CIA field operative with a chequered past, a fact she managed to hide from her husband for the entire time they’ve been married. Is her past finally catching up to her, or is her husband up to no good?

The book is split between two timelines: the first one is Kate and Dexter’s life in Luxembourg, and the second is set some months later in the present, with the family now living in Paris. So there are all sorts of intriguing hints and foreshadowings everywhere to pique your curiosity and keep you reading as more and more twists and revelations pile up. This plots within plots within plots approach gets a bit much near the end, but overall the book is heaps of fun. I also liked the depiction of the expat experience, which felt very natural and true; I’ve long been settled in Melbourne but I can still remember what it’s like trying to build a new life in a different country with a different language. Those first few months (or years) can be a weird, disorienting, rootless existence where you feel like you’re constantly suspended in midair, and I thought the author captured that state very well. The descriptions of the places Kate and Dexter visit feel like they were written by someone who’s actually been there and done the things characters do, which again is a nice realistic touch – Europe in this book does feel like Europe rather than a generic setting with European names. The book also explores themes like the difficulty some women have adjusting to full-time parenthood after a stimulating career, the secrets partners keep from each other, and whether it’s ok to do wrong things for a right reason.

Kate is a well-drawn character, not always likeable but with struggles that are easy to understand. Though I felt that the terrible secret from her past CIA life, when it is eventually revealed, is treated rather glibly, which is a shame considering how heavy it is. Dexter the husband is, unfortunately, a less satisfying character; he’s understandably opaque at first because he and his activities are supposed to be an enigma, but even later on he remains a nothing character with little personality to speak of. Even the American couple Kate comes to suspect, whose true natures are also a mystery, are much better realised characters.

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