Chris Pavone’s debut thriller, The Expats, is so well crafted it feels like a machine designed to activate the pleasure centers of anybody raised on post-Bond espionage tales. Exotic, money-soaked milieu? Check. Intricate, spy-versus-spy intrigue? Got that too. Occasional detours into dark alleys? Present and accounted for!
A tweak you couldn’t foresee is that the trained killer in The Expats stresses over when she’ll find time to do the family’s laundry.
The novel’s heroine, Kate, is a CIA operative in her late 30s who quits the agency to move to Luxembourg with her two young boys and brilliant if secretive husband, Dexter. The latter has just taken a lucrative job handling IT security for an international bank. Pavone easily could have played Kate’s double life for laughs: Now she’s grocery shopping! Now she’s breaking into the office of a suspected spy! But his prose remains stubbornly, impressively square-jawed. This story is serious business, he wants us to know, making The Expats not just a thrilling novel but a thoughtful one: How will Kate and Dexter manage their shifting circumstances? If your partner has ever suddenly announced a serious life change, you’ll easily relate to their predicament. (Though yours probably involved less gunplay.)
The parallels between double-agentry and adultery are obvious, once Pavone points them out: What is a spy’s cover story, after all, but an act of infidelity? Dexter is ignorant of his wife’s periodically lethal past. But as Kate settles into their new life in “cobblestony old Europe,” helping her kids transition from Spongebob Squarepants to Bob L’Éponge, she learns that Dexter is hiding aspects of his own gig too. She grows especially suspicious of Bill and Julia, a comely couple who seem to materialize everywhere Kate and Dexter do. In the course of a few months, her life of day trips and long lunches with fellow moms gives way to a paranoia that prompts her to dust off her spycraft — and picklocks.
Kate discovers that Bill and Julia are FBI agents — and that they are investigating Dexter for an alleged fraud involving tens of millions of euros. Is Kate’s ensuing anger that of a justice-minded law-enforcement agent, or that of a wronged spouse? Same difference, Pavone argues. Indeed, Kate’s deepening despair could be ripped straight from a novel of suburban dysfunction: “The things unsaid between Kate and Dexter were large beyond comprehension. They’d been growing every day for months, for years, for their entire relationship. But now the lies and secrets were accelerating. The growth was exponential.”
That’s another stealthy facet of The Expats: At heart it’s a novel about what it means to be a loyal spouse, with a few political assassinations and some high-tech code-breaking layered on top. As Dexter reveals more about what he is doing and why, Kate must decide how much she can trust him — and how much she herself deserves to be trusted. Here the author lets us see Kate’s steely resolve, as she cracks Dexter’s computer passwords and dismantles their Ikea chest as part of her search.
None of this would be as effective if The Expats weren’t so smartly engineered. Pavone is tauntingly parsimonious about Kate’s past, dropping a trail of bread crumbs about her CIA work that showcase her resourcefulness and mama-grizzly instincts. His prose is pared down but elegant: In a tense moment between Kate and Dexter, a glass of red wine becomes “a horror film’s bloody swimhole in an abandoned quarry.”
The Expats is not without some first-novel issues. The closing pages are surprisingly talky, as if Pavone had assembled an intricate jigsaw only to hammer home the final pieces. And Kate and Dexter’s two boys, so crucial to the novel’s push and pull of espionage-versus-domesticity, threaten to become afterthoughts as Pavone hastily ties up loose ends. But the novel’s structure is sturdy enough to withstand those troubles, and it never loses its central thread: If it weren’t for the secrets we acquire along the way, a man and a woman could make a happy home together.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at markathitakis.com.