If your thing in a spy thriller is tension aplenty with lots of secrets and puzzles, you will enjoy this book. Chris Pavone excels in the double-double cross and even makes you laugh at it. He is equally good at putting you right in the middle of whatever description he's got going. Europe has never been so conjured up for the reader's imagination. The plot is a good one, often curved around the unexpected, and it's a tiny bit implausible, but not so implausible it interferes with your intelligence.
Where Pavone falls into mediocrity is in the details. At times there are just too many of them. Other times they are half-presented, then dropped too soon. An example of too many is this entire paragraph: "There was a squat hard-plastic container of cardboard coasters featuring a baroque coat-of-arms, with a lion and pennants and maybe snakes and a sun and a crescent moon, and stripes, and a castle turret, plus gothic lettering that she couldn't make out because from where she sat it was upsidedown, this highly stylized thick black lettering." The description plays no part in the scene or the plot. Oh, the word "this" is Pavone's favorite, used far too many times.
As for a detail dropped too soon, the protagonist, Kate, sees some nuns, making her feel guilty, for what we know not.
Writes Pavone, "Kate was impressed with how many words this woman used to communicate her ideas." Funny, I was thinking the very same thing about the author!
The biggest problem for me is the character, Kate. She thinks like a man trying to think like a woman, and often it just doesn't work. The biggest failure is the relationship between Kate and Julia. They often relate more like two males would. Kate and Dexter also interact sort of by the numbers. In other words, intimacy is nonexistent.
The author wants to put Kate into predicaments and then think a way out for her but few women I know would have acted that way. Take when Dexter, her husband comes home from work and catches her before she can hide what she is doing. She lets him best her because she can't think of a way to keep him out of the kid's room. Really? Any woman worthy of the name would immediately make a cunningly directed play for her husband, redirecting his attention to sexy teasing. But our Kate, the hard-bitten CIA assassin merely crumples away from the room, giving her husband the upper hand.
Then there's the scene where she boldly hurls herself down an extremely dark, dangerous alleyway, allowing herself to be led to a hard-core "den of inequity," and without a blink of nerves, drops her clothes in front of the armed vicious, crazy bad guys (I don't think even an Angelina Jolie character would do this!), ends up getting what she wants and leaves with impunity. It was as if she swam naked and bloody into the middle of a shark fest and emerged untouched.
Conversely, why did the author put her in male writer's favorite women's position: nighttime, alone, vulnerable, stalked, chased. Yup, there's our Kate again, but this time she is in her own safe neighborhood, knows the layout, is wearing high heels walking toward home ... and she is scared! She worries about her shoes on cobblestones, as well. What! Again, any woman worthy of the name would simply remove the shoes and run, not do as Kate does, cringe with anxiety and then bop the wrong man -- which scene BTW has nothing to do with the plot. It is just in there for "fun." We never find out anything about either man; both disappear from the book.
Another example of her character being "off": here is a woman who LIVES secrets. Her husband doesn't know she is a spy. So what sort of game does she teach her children to amuse them? A spy game she makes up. I don't think so!
If you can get past the detailed minutiae, the inadequate and stiff sounding dialogue, and a main character who never quite comes together, you still have left the suspense, the mystery as it unravels, and several good observations -- such as, "People who were too outgoing made her suspicious. She couldn't help but presume that all the loud noise was created to hide quiet lies." Now that's the way a spy would think!
Because of the information already included on the Amazon page for this product, it should not be a surprise to anyone that espionage plays a part in this novel, so I will admit without fear of giving spoilers that I have always loved novels related to espionage. However, I have never read one in which the protagonist was female, and espionage is not really the main story in this novel.
In keeping with my desire to not give spoilers, I will refrain from explaining character backgrounds and major plot points, at least with any specificity.
Kate, the protagonist, is married to Dexter, and they both have each other fooled, to very different extents, and in very different ways. They have a commitment to each other that transcends the deceptions, and both have very good reasons for their deceptions, though perhaps not reasons with which everyone will have sympathy.
The plot is one with many twists -- a veritable roller-coaster ride -- and takes the reader across various countries and continents, mundane and exotic. It also jumps back and forth in time enough to cause vertigo.
The only serious weak point of the novel, in my opinion, is that the author has the characters' actions mostly occur in their memories, rather than simply showing us all of the action as it occurs. A great deal of the story, action or back-story, is simply explained in dialogue, which is not ideal, but it is still quite interesting.
In my copy, it is stated that this book is "being developed for major theatrical release by CBS films." I think the story lends itself well to a movie version, and possibly will be even stronger as such, but there is little doubt that Pavone is a talented writer (a former editor and ghostwriter), and I expect to see much more of his work.
The strongest recommendation I can give for this novel is that if there were a sequel, I would read it.
on April 28, 2012
I read the blurbs for The Expats and, expecting some fun, listened to the book on CD during a long trip. What a let down. I had to hear all the bad writing and silly plot elements that I might have overlooked had I been reading and able to skim. The main character, Kate, is former CIA, now a trailing spouse with a husband working in Luxembourg. She's the only CIA agent you ever heard of who, when surprised, stands there with her mouth hanging open. And when she tries to close it, she can't. She's THAT surprised!
Kate never told her husband, Dexter, about her CIA job, and for plot reasons she contemplates telling him now. But she figures, genius that she is, that if she tells him the basic fact of her former profession, she will have to tell him every tiny detail of her work, including an harrowing event she prefers to keep secret. Really? She can't imagine giving an outline of her days as an operative, then claiming the rest is classified? This is the clever CIA spook?
Kate also gives newcomers in her life open access in many ways that we yokels who never held a government clearance find strangely naive. Could our country really count on such simpletons?
The book was twice as long as it should have been, stuffed with filler such as "she grabbed the mouse and moved the cursor". I don't believe anything I've read has droned through that level of detail! Descriptions were terrible, such as "he had the skin of an old Shar Pei". As if the skin of a young Shar Pei was smooth!
The reader of the CD version, Mozhan Marno, was no help. She narrated the voice of all male characters in the same monotonous, low register, making every man sound identically stilted and robotic. And though her French accent was lovely, she mispronounced such words as trattoria, rifled, Copenhagen, and eschew. (I am currently listening to Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers, read by the author. The contrast is striking. Powers has the added problem of letting you know when he's quoting. He shifts his voice slightly, and uses a countried accent for Twain, so its always clear. Perhaps he should teach a class.)
The excellent blurbs quoted above show that connections are all, when it comes to publicity. Chris Pavone, a former editor with contacts in the book biz, has been given praise by his friends in spite of his mediocre writing.
on March 27, 2012
I am in the financial industry and looked forward to another author creating mysteries related to the industry. I was terribly disappointed and forced myself to finish the book -- something I rarely have to do. The plot and outcomes are obvious; the depiction of banks and the world of money is so far removed from reality I could not suspend disbelief when reading the book; and the author's constant placement of his own voice, masked as the thoughts of the protagonist, was downright annoying. I myself have written a book, I am very respectful of new authors but the bottom line is stay away, a poorly written book all the way around.
on January 18, 2014
How and why this novel won the 2013 Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author is the greatest mystery of all. I have to wonder if the award was intended to be an insiders' joke on the reading public by the publishing industry. The recognition has to be based on Chris Pavone having once been an editor rather than on his mastery of storytelling and writing craft.
If the Edgar award had truly been based on a newbie's display of writing craft, then three of the other nominees: Black Fridays by Michael Sears, Don't Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman, and Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal would have surpassed The Expats by a significant margin. The writing craft and the storytelling of those three novels are so much better than The Expats that it doesn't seem fair including The Expats in the comparison. The only logical conclusion is that the Edgar award was based on the author's long-standing relationships within the publishing industry, and not because he wrote such a great novel... which unfortunately means the award wasn't a fair competition for the other finalists. You know the old saying, "It's who you know, not what you know."
I am the type of reader who will finish reading every book I begin reading, regardless of how bad it is or how disinterested I become. I started and finished four other novels, plus one non-fiction book, during the time period it took me to start and finish this one. I could only tolerate reading 3-5 pages at a time before story boredom and/or laborious writing drove me to the pages of another book. If I could, I would ask the author to reimburse the cost of this book.
As for some specifics: 1) Kate was not believable as a CIA field agent, unless incompetency is part of the job requirements. 2) The plot takes forever to develop. 3) The continuous stream of flashbacks is both tedious and distracting. 4) The author wastes the reader's time with endless and wordy descriptions of routine/mundane events. As example: "It was lightly drizzling, or misting, or whatever it's called when minuscule bits of water, too fine to feel distinct drops, are drifting down out of the sky." Twenty-eight words to communicate something everyone already knows, when "it was lightly drizzling" (just four words) would've done the job just as well, in fact: better. This overly wordy style can be found on almost every page. Do the math: this novel should've been (and easily could have been) a short story of less than 100 pages rather than a 352-page, word-heavy, novel-length short story. Like I said, I think this novel and the Edgar award it received was just a joke by the publishing industry being played on the reading public. 5) The author appears to own stock in "ly" adverbs and thus uses as many of them as he possibly can on each and every page. 6) My biggest complaint is that the writing draws attention to itself, rather than to the story.
Another example of poor craftsmanship: "Kate was taken aback by this excessive garrulousness." Huh? The meaning of garrulousness is "excessively talkative." Which means the author, in his desire to display his ability to overwrite, actually wrote: "Kate was taken aback by this excessive, excessive talking." It seems the author believes in the old axiom: "Why use just one word, when two will be overkill and make my writing come off as being literary?"
This is only the second time I have ever given a novel a 1-star rating. I read approx. 50-55 novels each year, plus another twenty or so non-fictions. Yes, it was that bad. I would not recommend this novel to anyone, not even to my worst enemy.
The writing style of this offering is not great. Kate (the central chacter) feels, Kate thinks, Kate recalls, and that's the way most of the story is told. You'd think with so much Kate-centrism, the reader would get a good sense of who Kate is and what she's about. That didn't really happen for me. Or perhaps it's just that I never came to share the author's plain admiration for his character.
The basic story is a good one, but it's not well told. The chapters and demi-chapters jump back and forth in time and locale well beyond the point of distraction. The pages of this manuscript must have been dropped on the editing room floor, and been haphazardly re-assembled as they were rushed off to the printer.
The secondary characters lack definttion. I understand why Kate views them in different lights through the course of the story which is, in essence, a story that raises the question of "Who can you trust?". But since Kate trusts no one, it's hard to feel much as she faces betrayals.
I feel I deserved something for reading this book to the end. And I certainly believe that the ending didn't deliver. I can't recommend this novel.
on April 12, 2012
The idea of this book was very interesting and I couldn't wait to get started. And I read it to the very end...and couldn't figure out why it had good reviews. There are multiple story lines occuring at the same time but with characters I didn't care about. It was not a plausible story, had very little detail to support the ideas and the author kept jumping around with story lines and tenses. It could have used a good editor, that was sorely lacking. I also felt the ending was rushed...perhaps a movie deal in the works? It was such a disappointment.
on May 28, 2012
I gave this novel three stars since, for me, it was a fun read, so it deserves at least as much. However, I have to admit that I am biased; I live in Luxembourg, so there was, for me, the added interest of reading about places I know and have been to hundreds of times, and of trying to spot the howlers. Speaking of which, there are plenty of those. I think Chris Pavone will probably be banned from ever visiting the country again by the Grand Ducal government: secret, no-name number-only accounts such as the ones that play a prominent part in the book are simply not supposed to exist in Luxembourg, and probably don't. The government won't at all appreciate anyone asserting the contrary. Also, the whole point of the FBI operation would probably be lost on the locals. If the FBI thought one of the main characters had committed a crime, and went even to the trouble of telling Interpol about it, surely the first thing to do would be to apply, through official channels for, and get, all of that person's bank records? Not to say freeze his assets immediately, pending investigations.
More minor errors abound as well: The Grand Duke is never in residence in the Grand Ducal palace in the city, that's just his office, he lives outside of the city. Belle Etoile, the shopping centre where the two women characters get drenched to the bone running across the open air car park to the gates does have an underground parking facility as well, which sensible people prefer when it is pouring down with rain. And so on and so forth. Oh, and before I forget, very very few people actually live in the old city centre, so it is very surprising that the two couples that make up the novel's main characters do so.
Such small errors in details are not a major problem for people who don't know Luxembourg, but I'm afraid that they are the surface tip of quite a bit of superficiality. There are hardly any locals in the novel; one would be forgiven for thinking Luxembourg is exclusively populated by expats, apart from stangely stubborn waiters in cafés and restaurants, who will only react to French. The author even manages to call the local language Luxembourgeois (in French), in place of the more common 'Luxembourgish'. Caricatures abound (such as the French policeman, in another part of the book, chatting up a pretty girl and oblivious to the traffic chaos developing around him) and one can't help but feeling that the novel betrays a somewhat simplistic and prejudiced view of 'those strange Europeans' from an American.
I also found the novel's structure somewhat difficult to follow: action takes place on three levels: today (Paris), a year or so ago (Luxembourg), further back in the past (the States): there is a constant back and forth between chapters, which is somewhat difficult to follow and tiring. Without wishing to give too many spoilers away, I'd say the end, when all falls into place, is quite improbable. One of the novel's assets is that just when you thought you knew everything, there is a further major twist down the plot. But the downsides of that are, first, that you have to get pretty near the novel's end to get to the stage where you believe you know everything and, before you have time to let this sink in, the next twist arrives and, second, there are irritatingly far too many pointers at various stages in the novel about the fact that all is not what it seems, and this ends up spoiling the fun.
Still, I don't regret buying this.
on March 29, 2012
As others have mentioned, the pre-pub reviews were gushing all over like spilled ink spreading out in newsprint. Or something like that. While I must respect anyone's effort to write a mystery-crime book and weave all the little threads in at the right moment, The Expats was really a great disappointment. It wasn't that the plot -- however implausible it might be -- wasn't at least a bit amusing; it was that the characters were not only not amusing but ciphers. It was impossible for me to care about any one of them because they were so one-dimensional and, sorry to say, boring. I struggled through to the end primarily because I had paid good money for it, but it was not a happy experience. And also like others who have written, I am duly astounded that so many people actually thought it was a good book. What in the world is going on here?
on April 26, 2012
This book was very slow developing and boring. The author spent the first half of the book talking about life for rich moms in Luxembourg. Any suspense the book had took place in the protagonist's earlier life or was based on bogus-feeling suspicions that all happen to be true and confirmed by a very convenient character who does all the leg-work and seems to have all the answers from start to finish. In short, this book was extremely boring and contrived