Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Expats, Chris Pavone

I have no idea how to write this review. Normally, I don't think about the review while I'm reading the book. I did with this one. Sure I have opinions as I'm reading. I even discuss them while I'm reading, but I don't actively think "what am I going to say," while I'm reading. Here, I just wasn't sure what I would write about. Was I enjoying it? Did I hate it? Was it just one of those books I don't really enjoy till the end? That's happened before. I've been reading a book, thinking "this thing is terrible," until the last 10 pages. I can't not finish a book.

But I didn't hate this book. I can't say I liked it that much either. Ok, the premise here is a CIA agent, Kate, who quits her job and moves to Luxembourg with her family when her husband gets a job offer. Shortly after moving, she meets Julia and Bill Mclean. Shortly after that, she begins to believe the Mcleans are not who they claim to believe and that her husband, Dexter, is hiding something from her. Something big. She's right on all accounts. The Mcleans are undercover FBI agents working with Interpol to investigate Dexter for stealing 50 million Euros. And he's guilty.

Exciting right? Former spy, married to a thief, being investigated by the FBI. It's got all the makings of a suspenseful drama. But it's not. It's not a book I couldn't put down. In some cases I decided to play Sudoku on my phone instead of read. Unheard of!   

My first issue was the timeline. I don't mind jumping around through time in a book, but I found this just…weird. There is only one time frame specifically identified: Today. Today has its own chapters and font, and gets a time of day, too. "Today" is two years after the family moves to Luxembourg. Then there's the past. The past includes various parts of Kate's career, the decision to move to Luxembourg, her exit interviews, the move, different parts of Kate's life in Luxembourg, different parts of Kate's life in DC, even her life pre-Dexter. And all that has no real delineation. There are a couple asterisks, and the text starts. The asterisks don't always indicate a change in time, though. You just have to keep reading to figure out when it's all happening. Basically, you guess. I got used to it, but it took a while.

My second issue is Kate herself. She's just an odd duck. The book is writing as a narration with access to Kate's head. So, she's supposed to be an ex-spy. She indicates that she was damn good at her job. Then something happens (and it takes till the end of the book to find out exactly what happened) that made her decide to leave the field. She becomes an analyst. Still Dexter doesn't know she works for the CIA, instead of the State Department (though her supposed connection to DoS should have factored in at some point, but I'm not going to go into all that here - it's just another WTF moment). However, even though she's supposed to be this great operative with this great career ahead of her (until he leaves the field), she's a frickin' idiot! 

Let me 'splain.

She finds out the Mcleans are FBI pretty quickly (for a slow moving book – more in a sec), yet she's not suspicious at all that Julia goes back to Kate's car or asks to use Kate's computer. Electronic surveillance never crosses her mind!! Not once, until, basically, the shit hits the fan. I'm talking the absolute last minute before she blows the whole thing. The whole idea is that her time out of the field has made her rusty. Towards the end, when you finally find out what made her leave the field, she acknowledges that her objectivity, her judgment, was waning before she quit fieldwork  Still, even without that…she just made some ridiculous mistakes - like not checking her husband's office for cameras when she breaks in. Or not considering electronic surveillance. Or so many other things.

And her interactions with Dexter are pretty ridiculous too. I guess the point the author is making is that she doesn't feel like she can call him out on some things because she's been lying to him for their entire relationship, because she has so many secrets. I guess this goes back to that compromised judgment. Even when she's not really suspicious of him, she's mad at him. He's never home, always working, traveling. Even when he's home he's withdrawn, distant. But she never says a damn thing! Not. One. Damn. Thing.  There's this dinner scene where Dexter is silent and unfocused. The kids are trying to talk to him, but he doesn't hear them. After the 5th or so time the kids say "Daddy?" Kate freaks, throws down her fork and goes to the kitchen to calm down. But she doesn't say anything. She always rationalizes her way out of a confrontation. Mostly thinking about her secrets.

She also seems fairly oblivious to the fact that she could confront her husband about a number of things without revealing her CIA status. She could confront him, and if he really didn't know about her work with the CIA, it'd probably be the very last thing he would suggest. "Honey, you're withdrawn and secretive, so I followed you to your office today. I went in but your door was locked. How come you work in a locked office?" "Honey, I was looking for some info on our DC mortgage and I found your employment contract. How come you put it in the mortgage file?" or "Honey, I was curious and I wanted to see if I could find any clue to your work, and I found your employment contract hidden in the mortgage file. What's up with that?" 

Somehow I don't see "OMG! You're CIA!!" being the immediate reaction to those statements. For a professional liar, she seems fairly awful at lying. I guess it's the whole guilt thing, but still: CIA. 

The rationalization, poor decisions, the guilt, so much second guessing; it all leads to a fairly neurotic character. Again, I had to wonder how she was ever a CIA operative, let alone a good one. It's not till page 201 that she even acknowledges she loves her husband. Up until then, it's all about how she chose him because he wasn't manipulative or super ambitious. No emotion. It all seems cerebral until page 201. Two hundred and one!

There were good things though. The book moves slow. At least the beginning does. The timeline jumps don't help, but does make it somewhat suspenseful. You read one "today" chapter and then 75 pages of background. So you're constantly wondering what's going to happen; what's the next secret to be revealed? For me it was a bit…"get on with it already!" But it wasn't that way for the whole time.

And there are deceptions within deceptions within deceptions. She and her husband lying to each other, the FBI agents lying to both of them, Kate lying to the CIA, and so much more. This is probably the saving grace of the whole thing. Without all these layers of deceptions, it would be a complete wash.

One final complaint: the end. There's a confrontation at the end – I don't want to give too much away because for this particular book, not knowing is what saves it. If you know what's going to happen, I think it'd just be…well, slow and boring. Anyway, there's this confrontation. Kate has the opportunity to send the bad guy to jail. She's made a deal to save her family by doing this. The baddie threatens her husband. Well, no, that's not entirely true. The baddie admits that they would have killed Dexter, if necessary. Not exactly a threat. And then Kate decides, maybe the baddie isn't all bad. She reveals her plan, and tells the baddie they can't have the money, but can have their freedom if they go.

And that's it. I have a hard time believing this action doesn't mess up her deal. She conceals her warning to the baddie, but I don't think it would be completely missed. I would have loved an epilogue – like 6 months later or something. It just felt…unfinished.

OK, so my recommendation: Your guess is as good as mine. I really can't say one way or another. I would not say this was a bad book. I would not tell someone not to read it. I would not tell someone they should read it either. As I said, there are great deceptions, great twists, great secrets and lies. It just feels…plodding. It's like being behind that guy going 10mph under in the left lane, know what I mean?

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