Chris Pavone: The Expats (2012)

I saw Chris Pavone’s The Expats at the local book shop and the blurb sounded interesting. It said the novel was about a young married American woman, Kate, mother of two, who followed her husband to Luxembourg and reinvented her life as an expat mom. They meet another expat couple, become friends and some weeks into the friendship Kate starts to doubt that Julia and Bill are really who they say they are. As a matter of fact none of the people in this novel are who they say they are.

I’m not a fan of spy novels and if I had realized that’s what this was supposed to be, I wouldn’t have bought it but the blurb was misleading. It sounded much more like the story of a woman who reinvents herself, gives her life new meaning, which is a topic I love. Despite the fact that it’s a genre I’m not fond of and a very long novel, I was still willing to give it a try and finished it rather quickly. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean I liked it.

I wrote above that this was supposed to be a spy novel but I’m not sure it really is. It’s the story of a woman who had a secret she didn’t even tell her husband and that secret was, that she used to work for the CIA. Later, when she finds out that all the people around her have secrets, she tries to uncover them but that’s not really spying, is it? It’s rather a crime novel without murder, a thriller without danger. Still it’s quite suspenseful as there are many twists and turns or rather manipulative cutting and withholding of information. If you don’t mind that, you will find it gripping. Unfortunately I hate it when the twists and turns in a novel are not achieved in a natural way but simply through the cutting up of the story. Every time some question arose, some mystery was hinted at and about to be resolved, the author jumped back or forth in time. Annoying.

Another thing that I found hard to take is that Kate’s husband is called Dexter. How can you write a genre novel and call your main protagonist Dexter? Maybe Dexter isn’t as iconic as Ripley but he is not far from it.

Some other thing that bugged me – big time – were the cobblestones. Pavone spent some time as an expat in Luxembourg and clearly he wanted to share his insider information of Europe. Or rather what an American expat would call his insider information. I suppose one of the things that must have really made an impression on Pavone were the cobblestones. Sure, there are cobblestone roads in European cities but not everywhere. And why all his protagonists had to stand, walk, drive on cobblestones and not on roads, streets, alleys… I have no clue. I live in a very old European city, one with a big medieval old-town center and I can guarantee you, there aren’t all that many cobblestone roads and certainly not in the newer parts of the town or the roads on which cars drive.

I also really didn’t care for the country clichés. So Switzerland is just a rich ski resort? Everybody eats ham sandwiches in Luxembourg all the time? Paris… yeah well, Paris has sordid clubs and food, food, food. Amsterdam has prostitutes in windows (who knew?).

Still, as I said, I finished this quickly, as the first secret which concerns the identity of Julia and Bill is interesting. After that the novel was quite predictable. Maybe a forgiving reader might like it but I thought the construction was annoying and the whole novel was full of trite clichés and one-dimensional characters. Last but not least who wants to read a book in which people with an annual salary of 300.000$ have a hard time to make ends meet?