Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thoughts on "The Expats" by Chris Pavone and a Special Announcement!

Kate Moore, the protagonist in Chris Pavone’s entertaining novel The Expats, is one of those people who can’t bring their work home, but once she quits her job, it follows her anyway. As the novel opens, her husband, Dexter, an online security expert, announces to her that he has a new job, one that will move them, along with their two children, from their Washington D.C, home to the European postal-stamp nation of Luxembourg, where they will join the subclass known as expatriates, or “expats” for short.

Kate reluctantly agrees. She has no choice, because arguing to stay in Washington might mean revealing to her seemingly obtuse husband what exactly it is she does for living. Soon, the novel quickly and cleverly peels away Kate’s veneer of upper class Washington, D.C. normalcy to reveal who she really is—a CIA field operative, with a track of bloody footprints trailing behind across the espionage landscape.

And so, Kate retires from the Agency and tries hard to settle into the patterns and rhythms of an expat, stay-at-home mom in a foreign city—taking the kids to school and playdates, meeting with other expats at coffee houses, taking weekend family spins around the continent to Paris and Amsterdam.

We should all be so lucky, but Kate doesn’t feel lucky. She may have quit the business of spying, but she hasn’t quit life. The skills and habits ingrained in her over the years remain embedded and very much alive. She can’t help looking closely and noticing odd things, the kinks and breaks in the everyday that spies are trained to notice: like Dexter’s nebulous description of what his new job is really about and that strange other American expat couple, Julia and Bill, who suddenly become awfully friendly awfully quickly.

Despite some awkward insertion of social commentary, and clumsy flashbacks-within-flashback, The Expats  starts out as a fascinating, intriguing trip seen through the eyes of a wife, mother, and sometime government assassin. With strong, vivid prose and carefully woven detail, it does a terrific job of seeing the world through Kate’s eyes, of understanding how she sees things and why, and what she does about what it, especially as paranoia and obsession takes over and her view of her husband evolves into something darker and her love for him runs ups against the truth behind his secretive behavior.

However, the novel eventually sinks into the same gray sand that many genre novels run afoul of--its plot. As Kate’s and Dexter’s (and Julia’s and Bill’s) secrets are revealed, the story, ideas, emotions and characterizations are paved over with keystroke-by-keystroke detail (hacking plays a big role here) of who did what to whom and when.

Even the why—the emotions, the real engine of any good novel mainstream or genre—get shrifted, especially Dexter’s. His actions are driven by what must be a terrible and righteous rage, but the narrative merely skates over it and, afterward, following many pages of plodding dramatically static explanation, undercuts and dismisses him, leaving his character a helpless, foolish murp, leading to deeper revelations and confrontations that feel more contrived than satisfying. When Kate’s real enemy stands revealed, I merely shrugged and fought not to hurry to the end.

Sidney B. Cushing Mountain Theatre, Mt. Tamalpais, CA

A PSA from A Curious Man!


For those of you who are Bay Area residents, I am, of course, talking about Marin County’s fabulous and legendary Mountain Play, a full-blown outdoor musical extravaganza that is produced under summer skies, during July and August, on magnificent Mt. Tamalpais.

From Abraham and Isaac to this year’s The Music Man, the Mountain Play has been staged every year since 1913, performed in Sidney B. Cushing Amphitheatre, one of the most beautiful spots on the California coastline.

As the 100th anniversary approaches (and its longtime director retires), a group of Mountain Play members thought it a perfect time to film a documentary that both celebrates the history and pays tribute to this epic and treasured theatrical tradition.

But this movie can’t be made with your support. To help raise funds for what is sure to be an excellent film, producer Laurel Fontana has opened a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter. They have until May 21 to raise $34,000.

Don’t wait! Slip on your dancin’ shoes, kick up your heels, and donate today!

Photo from Mountain Play website.

Text Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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