Book Review: THE EXPATS by Chris Pavone

In Chris Pavone’s debut novel, CIA spy Kate Moore quits her job so she can move with her husband, Dexter, and their two young children to Luxembourg and live a “normal” life. She soon meets another American couple, Julia and Bill, who seem a little too friendly and interested in Kate and her husband. Dexter does banking security, protecting financial institutions from any kind of attack or intrusion. He also doesn’t know about Kate’s past. Are Julia and Bill after Dexter or investigating Kate? Are they Feds or more dangerous characters? Kate uses her skills to investigate, though it might expose secrets she’d rather stay hidden forever.

I had two main issues with this book, the first being I didn’t care for any of the characters. To different degrees, they’re all manipulative people and it didn’t matter to me who won in the end. Kate is a cipher, keeping herself remote from her husband and the readers. For a former spy, her powers of observation seem compromised at times. She allows Julia to both use her computer and go into her car¬†unsupervised, with Julia using lame excuses to do so. Regardless of what the reality is, Kate doesn’t even suspect the other woman might snoop. Aren’t spies suspicious of everyone? And this is after she already thinks something is a little off with her new best friend.

Pavone’s observational skills, on the other hand, are definitely sharp—he describes a lot of things in great detail. Sometimes this creates an enticing portrait of a European setting, but overall the habit is a hindrance. Many of the descriptions are not important to the story, and end up weighing down the narrative. Take this sentence, for example:

Kate turns the battered brass knob that’s set into the ornately molded plate that’s screwed to the gleaming creamy paint of the paneled closet door.

Except for the first word, that’s two modifiers per noun. Kate just needs to retrieve some luggage from the closet—why is all that excess information about the door necessary?

This overwriting is especially problematic when the action escalates. It’s hard for the suspense to be maintained when we have to stop and take note of what every passerby on the street is wearing and what they’re doing and how old they are. I had a Twitter discussion with Jenn aka The Picky Girl and she said this wasn’t a problem for her, because the details put her inside Kate’s shoes, showing how bored the former spy is, and how her restless mind would focus on all that minutiae. This gave me a logical perspective, but then perhaps Pavone did his job too well, because reading this novel made me bored and restless, too.

Nerd verdict: Bloated Expats

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12 Comments

  • Reply
    Lauren
    April 9, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Thanks for this detailed review, E. I appreciate you sharing your pros and cons about a book so us co-readers can get a feel of whether it’s in our bailiwick. Although the detailed prose may not be for you or me in this instance, many readers, like Jenn, love it or don’t have a problem with it. I’m glad to know going in what I’m going to get, so appreciate your views.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 9, 2012 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks, Lauren. I try to be fair, knowing that not everyone shares my peeves.

  • Reply
    Tea Time with Marce
    April 9, 2012 at 8:29 am

    Hmmm, I have been considering this one but the unnecessary detail will drive me crazy. Thanks for review.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 9, 2012 at 6:19 pm

      I hope your next read is something wonderful!

  • Reply
    jenn aka the picky girl
    April 9, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Oh my gosh. That sentence! Terrible!!!

    I wonder if part of me is just getting slow. I’ve read so many books already this year that maybe I’m not being my usual discerning self. It’s much different reading just to read and reading to review. Having done the former for most of my life thus far, I think I occasionally slip back into it without slowing myself down and remembering that I need to critically put this info into the book.

    You said it better than I could.

    I will say, though, that like we discussed, I didn’t just love this book. I wanted much more of the international spy thriller than what Pavone gave me. This from the girl working her way through all the Ian Fleming books, which by the way, you should read if you haven’t yet.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 9, 2012 at 6:14 pm

      It’s weird—I’m a huge fan of the Bond movies, but have never read the books. I have a couple lying around somewhere. Will try to get to them someday.

  • Reply
    EIREGO
    April 9, 2012 at 11:47 am

    I don’t think I’ll be reading this one.

  • Reply
    Jann
    April 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    While the premise is enticing, I’ll pass. Wordy books bore me to death. I love the advice of leaving out the words the readers will skip over anyway.
    thanks for the review!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 9, 2012 at 6:13 pm

      I love that advice from Elmore Leonard.

  • Reply
    Naomi Johnson
    April 9, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    That sentence sounds like a contender for a Bulwer Lytton award. I guess “She opened the closet door,” just sounded too pedestrian, no matter how accurate and concise it is.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 9, 2012 at 6:10 pm

      I would’ve been fine with “She went into the closet and retrieved a couple of wheelies and a tote.”

  • Reply
    Lancelot
    April 12, 2012 at 6:56 am

    Found you through the Goodreads competition. Neat stuff.

    As to spies being paranoid, I think inconsistent characters are interesting. A selling point for me would be a totally trusting, unsuspecting spy.

    But that’s just me.

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