The Expats by Chris Pavone

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The Expats by Chris Pavone

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Kate Moore, housewife, mother and secret CIA operative, jumped at the chance to leave her past in order to move to Luxembourg with her husband, Dexter. This would mean a new life to go with Dexter's nerdy new IT job and new friends. However the new friends aren't what they seem, and Kate's past? Well, that isn't quite as eager to leave Kate.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Faber and Faber
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0571279142

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Kate and Dexter Moore move to Luxembourg, along with their two young sons; a world away from their native Washington DC. The incentive is Dexter's great new job which will mean an expat lifestyle for a year or two, but good money and the chance to explore Europe. In the process Kate will be turning her back on more than Dexter realises. Up till their move to Luxembourg, Kate has led a secret double life as a CIA operative. As Kate comes to terms with the boredom of being a full-time housewife in an alien culture, they meet Bill and Julie, also expat Americans. They soon become friends, but Kate has her suspicions and discovers that the past is never far away.

Reading this book's blurb it seems that Kate isn't the only person involved with The Expats who has an interesting past. The author Chris Pavone is a gamekeeper turned poacher, having spent 20 years as a book editor before this debut novel. So what has he learnt from decades of overseeing other's compositions? Firstly he's set this novel in familiar surroundings. Chris Pavone was an expat in Luxembourg and he's nailed it completely. It's all there – the bitching, feeling that you may as well be on Mars and will never feel at home again, searching for mental stimulation between dropping and collecting the children and needing to create normality for them. I know this for I also lived that lifestyle for a couple of years and, like Kate, wasn't the tennis lesson/coffee morning sort either. As well as a thriller, this book is a hymn in praise of women who survive the expat world whilst their partners do the paid work in interesting careers. Indeed Mr Pavone is very good at writing women, which in this case it's a bit of a two edged sword. I'd best elaborate...

The novel is very well written throughout, but the first third is mainly involved with domestic issues. It's not chick-lit as such, but very female-centric which may peeve male readers who like something that hits the ground running. The features that kept me reading at this stage were the little teasers (more of these later) that interspersed the hassles of moving inter-continentally and life with two small sons. After about 100 or so pages, the thriller kicks in properly but I fear (without being sexist) that it may have alienated the men who have been enticed by a suggestion in the blurb of something akin to John Grisham.

Having disposed of the only negative, there is much to praise. Once the transition from superior soap to thriller begins, patience is definitely rewarded. Firstly the format which provides those earlier mentioned teasers. There are three distinct time zones threading through the novel. There's Kate's past (gradually revealing her darkest moments), the present (which later turns out to be the recent past) and the future (which later turns out to be the present). Confused? You won't be – that's the beauty of it. This is a great method via which the author injects intrigue, which then converts into compulsive page-turning... trust me, I succumbed.

It's not just the time line that's brave. Although fictional entertainment, The Expats goes against the zeitgeist in order to ask a very interesting question: is a crime still a crime when the victims are a bank and a war criminal? It doesn't provide the answer of course... that's the readers' job.

The characterisation is also good as each person is plausible, which is a big plus in a thriller. Kate may have an extraordinary past, but she also has two small sons to handle, bringing her within the realms of reality and normal experiences. Dexter may be a bit stereotypically nerdy, as one would expect of a patched together fictional IT guy, but that becomes more credible when it's explained why he's Kate's 'sort'. As for Julie and Bill... what can I say that isn't a spoiler? Perhaps something like 'Mr Pavone, you're a clever bloke!' The reader spots two particularly obvious twists early on, a lot earlier than Kate does, encouraging a certain smugness. However, the author has merely given these away as a freebie. There are plenty more that come from total left field, many of them (and a couple of perception changes) being kept for the big reveal at the end.

Please don't make assumptions from the book blurb; Chris Pavone is nothing like John Grisham, but dissimilar doesn't mean bad. Once it hits its stride, The Expats is an exciting, entertaining thriller that stands on its own without the need for stylistic similes. Chris Pavone's audience may even be different but, given time, it will be just as big... and there speaks a new fan.

I would like to thank Faber and Faber for providing The Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to read another thriller that isn't short of twists, try Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson. For more about expats, you might enjoy Staying On by C M Taylor.

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