How well do you know your spouse? Or your best friends? Even if the thought never occurred to you, it will by the time you’re halfway through The Expats, Chris Pavone’s clever debut spy novel that’s suspenseful enough for a man yet introspective enough for a woman.
Here’s the setup: Kate Moore has been working undercover for the CIA for 15 years, the last five as a working mother with two young boys. The problem is, she never quite got around to telling her computer geek husband Dexter about it. All these years, he assumed she was working overtime at a mundane administrative job when she was actually begging off social engagements in order to dispatch drug lords in Central America.
When Dexter lands a lucrative consulting job in data security for an unnamed bank in Luxembourg, Kate jumps at the chance to quit the Agency, leave her double life behind and start anew as a stay-at-home expat mom. The Moores soon hit it off with charismatic expat couple Bill and Julia, whose past strikes Kate as suspiciously homogenized. Now that Dexter is traveling more, Kate begins to sense something different about him as well. Or is it just her? It turns out you can take the girl out of the spy game but you can’t take the spy out of the girl.
The result is that rarity in the genre: a spy novel virtually devoid of espionage (unless you count the domestic variety) and violence (save for flashbacks to Kate’s previous wet work). Instead, the suspense, and an endearing humor that spouses will appreciate, builds almost entirely from Kate’s internal dialogue as she slowly peels back the layers of artifice in her life.
The funny thing is, Pavone didn’t set out to write a spy novel.
Like Kate, he’d jumped at the chance to experience the expat life. After working half his life as a nonfiction book editor and ghostwriter in New York, Pavone welcomed the news when his wife took a job offer in Luxembourg.
“I thought, this is great! I’d never lived anywhere else except New York and I felt a little disappointed in myself; I didn’t even do a junior year abroad,” he recalls. “I was turning 40, our marriage was turning 10, and I thought, this is a great thing to do, let’s do it.”
"I think most people have no idea what their spouses do all day long."
After a lifetime smothered in manuscripts, Pavone was suddenly Mr. Mom to their twin four-year-old boys in a leafy foreign park filled almost exclusively with expat moms. Having never written or edited fiction before, he began distilling this rich new life into a novel. And it was going nowhere.
“As I was writing that book, it bored me,” he says. “I really liked the setup and the characters I was constructing but I just didn’t like the story I found myself telling. There was not enough that I could imagine happening that was going to make it into a satisfying read to me.”
Then one day he was sitting on a park bench beside an expat housewife who made very clear that she had no intention of discussing her past.
“I got to thinking, what if this woman did something horrible?” Pavone recalls. “I moved abroad because my wife got a job and I was bored and that’s the standard reason, but there could be lots of other reasons to move abroad, to change your life entirely. And it amused me to think that maybe this woman used to be a spy. Which led me to, what if my main character actually was this person with this secret that she was keeping, not only from all of her new friends but also her husband?”
As a result of that chance meeting, Pavone revised his work in progress. Changing Kate into an ex-spy both amped up the plot of The Expats and added layers of meaning to her journey. After all, once her past was a well-guarded secret, the same could apply to her friends and husband as well.
“Part of the theme that I hope comes through in the book is that marriage is a continuum of honesty and deception, and the reality of people’s relationships is not something that outsiders can understand,” Pavone says.
“I don’t mean to sound dire or dour about marriage; I enjoy mine immensely. But the truth is, I only know what my wife does all day long because we work in the same business. I think most people have no idea what their spouses do all day long. It’s not a question of adultery I’m talking about, but just the reality that you live this life of 40, 50, 60 hours a week doing something completely divorced from your family and it’s possible that it’s just completely not what the other person thought it would be.”
Once he’d cracked open the plot, did he consider changing Kate’s gender?
“The reason I didn’t want it to be a male was because, if I made the protagonist a male in this book populated by women, then that’s what the book would be about in a lot of readers’ eyes,” he explains. “The whole thing would be about a guy in this women’s world and I didn’t really want that to be what the book is about. It would have appeared overtly political, either a joke or something too earnest, and I didn’t want it to be either of those things. I wanted it to be a much more universal story.”
Pavone says that while Kate will return one day, she won’t be in the follow-up.
For now, he’s satisfied to have produced a genre rarity: The Spy Who Came in From the Park.
“It is a woman’s spy book in a lot of ways. It’s got a woman on the cover and I hope that women will come to it. I hope that men will read it too because men read the bulk of spy books, but I think that this is a book for women as well.”