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?

41 thoughts on “Chris Pavone: The Expats (2012)

  1. As I read your review, I knew that I would feel just about the same way–although I’m not sure that I would catch the cultural errors.

    Writing novels set in foreign countries (foreign to the author) can be problematic and they don’t always work. I’ve learned to be careful of novels set in Russia–ok if they’re written BY Russians but suspect if they’re not.

        • Actually no, he didn’t attempt to create an atmopshere. i think for that you need to know countries far better. I like travel pieces and I don’t mind authors setting books in foreign countries but they need to be very attentive.
          Mentioning the prostitutes in Amsterdam is just too obvious. Everyone who has ever been here saw that but there is far more to Amsterdam and it has a very unique feel. That’s what I want to see captured.

  2. Have you read Harry Mathews’ My Life in CIA? It’s sort of a take-down of these pedestrian thrillers about ex-pats actually turning out to be CIA agents, except that he turns the genre on its head by simply going along with people’s inaccurate assumptions that he’s a CIA agent, which invites all kinds of consequences. Great fun.

    • That sounds quite good. Thanks for mentioning it. I think the labelling in this case was totally off. the blurb promised one thing, then I saw the tag said it was a spy novel but it really was more like mystery withouth corpse…

  3. The idea that the “secrets” were not really about spying or crimes could really add a touch of subtlety to a book. and make it different.

    Too bad it did not work. The story sounds otherwise cliched and superficial.

  4. Hi, Caroline,
    Actually, I have to admit I enjoyed it thoroughly! I read it early in 2012. Perhaps my enthusiasm can be reduced to the fact that I was in the mood for anything escapist, and I did love the European setting, cobblestones aside. Perhaps an American audience was intended, most of whom would be clueless about many of the things you mentioned.

    I was very interested to read your thoughts, Caroline!

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • I did finish it, which means I didn’t think it was badly written, that’s a huge differenceT but it was really not for me.
      The cobble stones got on my nerves, I must admit. Once I paid attention I noticed he mentioned them all the time.
      I can see that one can like it. Many people love this type of cutting up of the story, cliffhanger endings at the end of chapters. I don’t.
      But the main thing was that I really thought it would be something else. I saw on amazon meanwhile that I’m not the only one who was mislead by the blurb.

  5. Your post have confirmed to me the reason why I prefer European or Scandinavian crime or spy novels… I thought at this side of the ocean, it is more grounded and well thought of without the need to impress or stereotype or re-emphasise the ambience of the story being set in the Europe. Yes the roads are not paved with cobblerstones everywhere. Prostitutes are found in every city (not only Amsterdam). I am very relief that I bought this for 20p only last December over at the Kindle sales!

    • I’m a book hoarder, I keep most of the books I read but this one has to go.
      I think there are some very good American crime authors but those set their books in American cities.
      Overall, like you I prefer European crime fiction.
      You can always start it, I think you’ll know after a few pages whether you’ll continue or not. Just don’t read it for the atmosphere.

  6. There are cobblestones in Luxembourg City but not more than any other old city in Europe. I hate when a writer indulges in clichés about countries.
    Thanks for the review, I might have been tempted by the book, just to see how he deals with the Luxembourg setting.

  7. Wrong book, wrong time by the sounds of it. I know I’d be annoyed by cutaways to other points in the story every time something interesting was about to be revealed. Note to authors: don’t play coy. In art, as in life, it’s simply irritating.

  8. I kind of understand the importance Dexter thing! It would put me off too. As for the cobblestones over here in the UK local town councils keep repaying on the grounds of health and safety! It sounds like vandalism to me. Nice review – the book sounds interesting.

    • Here in Switzerland they have flattened some of the cobble stone places and alleys to prevent accidents… I don’t understand that. People should be careful. It doesn’t look good at all.
      I suppose the right reader, and pre-warned about some of the shortcomings, would like the book nonetheless.

  9. I’m trying to think where there are cobblestones in London. None comes to mind. It must have been difficult to stick with this one since there was much you didn’t like. Doesn’t sound like I’d enjoy it that much either. I think I would prefer the reinventing a life–new goals, new frame of mind–not the cliche CIA thing.

    • Exactly, and that’s what I expected. The blurb didn’t say anything therew was just amsll line somewhere above that stated it was spy novel.
      I suppose there are some cobble stones in London but in small side streets. Overall the city isn’t Medieval.

  10. Nice review, Caroline! When I reached the end of the review, I was smiling :) Sorry to know that you didn’t like this book, as much as you expected to. Sorry to know that the book had too many cliches and weak generalizations. I liked this observation of yours – “It’s rather a crime novel without murder, a thriller without danger.” I think I will keep away from this book. Thanks for this review :)

    • Thanks, Vishy. Well, I cannot really recommend it. It has a little bit of everything but simply not enough of the things I like and I really don’t care for books which have this type of structure.

  11. I also don’t like spy book…it’s just too boring for me.

    I often had the same experoience as yours when buying unknown (to me) writer. I have several books I haven’t finished because I bought them for their blurb. Good for you for finishing it…I will try fibishing one of them this year…hepefully ;)

    • I think that the blurbs are usually more accurate than that. maybe not the other lines saying “bets book”, “extraordinary” and all that but at least the description is mostly OK but in this case…
      I agree, i find most spy novels boring.

  12. I enjoyed your review even if you didn’t enjoy the book! ;) It would be hard to read about the place you live but only see a clichéd version of it. Still, I have a copy of it and will likely read it at some point. Will keep in mind that I need to pick it up when I am in a purely escapist sort of mood!

    • I’m sure it’s different reading about it when you’re not as familiar with places but the cutting didn’t work for me either.
      I’ll be curious to see whether you will like it. Reading it knowing what it’s menat to be and prepared to find it flawed might enhance the reading experience a lot. :)

  13. Pingback: The Expat Experience | Orange Pekoe Reviews

  14. Oh, Caroline, so far we have liked the same things, but this is one about which we’ll have to agree to disagree! I quite enjoyed the book, perhaps because of its devastatingly self-ironic and accurate portrayal of expat life. Yes, the cut from one frame to another got annoying after a while, and yes, there were perhaps quite a few spy novel cliches (the plot as a whole was not very believable), but on the whole it was a most enjoyable contrast between appearance and reality. Here is a link to my own review, if you are curious (I did read it about a year ago):

    http://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/book-review-the-expats-by-chris-pavone/

    • I think there will always be the one or the other book people with similar tastes will disagree on. We can read books in so many different ways. I didn’t see anything ironic or I might have liked it more. And those cuts frustrated me so much.
      I’m curious to read your review though.

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