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Book Talk: Deceit and espionage in darkest Luxembourg

The worst thing about Kate's life in Luxembourg as the trailing spouse of a man hired to work on banking security at first simply appears to be the boredom of spending days among fellow housewives after giving up her career.
/ Source: Reuters

The worst thing about Kate's life in Luxembourg as the trailing spouse of a man hired to work on banking security at first simply appears to be the boredom of spending days among fellow housewives after giving up her career.

But Kate, the heroine of Chris Pavone's debut novel "The Expats," is a former CIA agent who has never told her husband what she did. As she seeks both to escape her past deeds and become a new person, she starts to become suspicious not only of her husband Dexter's doings but those of a couple whose friendliness may not be quite what it seems.

Pavone, a cookbook editor and ghostwriter before giving those jobs up to follow his wife to Europe and, unsurprisingly, Luxembourg, spoke with Reuters about his book and about living overseas as the sole male among a group of expatriate women who met for coffee and all had other lives back "home."

Q: What got this book started?

A: "A lot of us were in the same boat of having been something else and having had other lives. We used to do something and put on clothes and talk to grownups all day, and now we were scrubbing toilets and shuttling kids back and forth to school in this horrible weather and meeting for coffee and not seeing our spouses for a week at a time.

"All of that very real stuff, very real true to life emotional stuff about being married and giving up a career and raising children -- that was all I started writing a book about. But the truth was, that book became a little bit boring to me, and I couldn't quite figure out how to make the tension work, drive the narrative forward, in a way that didn't become something I didn't want to write.

"In the meantime, I had a chance encounter in a playground, a brief discussion with a woman who didn't want to tell me clearly what she used to do. I was sitting there watching my children and trying to make small talk with a relative stranger, and it occurred to me as she was hemming and hawing and not answering my questions that she could be hiding something, and she could be hiding something horrible that she'd done. That was the reason that she was in Luxembourg -- it was such an easy place to reinvent yourself, it was so enticing really, to simply become a different person. Nobody had gone to school with you, nobody knew anybody you knew, nobody had any of those connections that sort of anchor you to who you are, the truth of you when you go about life in the place you're from.

"That's what I started writing about. What if people were there to reinvent themselves, what if people were there to escape something, what could be the most dramatic thing that somebody could be fleeing from. I hit upon this idea that not only was this protagonist escaping from something, she was also trying to reinvent herself into something she could be honest with her husband about. That duality of the running away from something she didn't want to be anymore, and at the same time trying to become something she did want to be."

Q: Kate is an interesting character -- she's a lot like the protagonist in a noir novel. Do you agree or disagree?

A: "I do agree with that. People keep asking and keep assuming that Kate is some type of alter ego of my wife. The woman who's on the dust jacket of the book looks vaguely like my wife. I keep having to answer that if Kate is anybody in my family, she is me. That I decided to make her a woman because I didn't want the book to be this fish out of water, man in a woman's world story. The truth is that a lot of her is me, and so inevitably she's going to be more masculine than a normal female protagonist. I didn't really do that on purpose."

Q: Do you think there's a particular glamour attached to expats and that whole life?

A: "I don't know about glamour but there's certainly a romance associated with it, I think. It's something that I definitely wanted to do, and the mere idea of it, of leaving the country you're from for a short amount of time or forever, I think is a very romantic idea of escape, of reinvention and of seeing the world."

Q: The setting almost seems like another character.

A: "One of the things that got me excited to write a story set in Luxembourg was the generic European-ness of it, that people come to the table with a lot of preconceived notions, having been to places like Paris and London and Rome. Even if they haven't been to them they have a very clear picture from other media of what those places look and feel and sound like.

"I thought one of the great things about Luxembourg as a setting for the book is that people don't know what it is and I got to invent Luxembourg for American readers on my own. That was very liberating, I didn't have to hew to what people thought London or Paris should sound like or draw comparisons to other people writing about London or Paris. This was exactly as you say, I could invent a character on my own, based on somebody I'd spent a lot of time with."