Can a former CIA agent now living with her family in Luxembourg have anything in common with expatriates in the UAE?
Actually, yes. Like many expats, Kate Moore has followed her spouse halfway round the world. She is surrounded by people talking a language she doesn't understand, flummoxed by unfamiliar traffic rules, frustrated with unreliable mobile phone reception, tired of eating on rented plates while waiting for the shipping container to arrive from home, and utterly, utterly bored with doing laundry and sipping coffee among other expat mums at the American Women's Club of Luxembourg.
"On Tuesdays and Thursdays, after drop-off, she did her French homework… Two or three days a week, she went to the gym… She drove the main byways of Luxembourg - route d'Arlon, route de Thionville, route de Longwy - poking in and out of shopping plazas and malls."
The slight difference between Kate and most expats is that two secret agents may be stalking her. This bored, long-legged, expatriate ex-spy is the heroine of an impressive but flawed debut novel, The Expats. Its author, Chris Pavone, a former book editor in New York based the setting on his own experience in Luxembourg. He was an expatriate only slightly less unusual than Kate: the expat dad who follows his wife to an exotic foreign posting.
Recruited into the CIA while at university in Washington DC, Kate was immediately assigned to collect covert information and recruit more spies in Latin America. For 10 years she committed or assigned several assassinations - a turncoat agent, a major drug dealer, a would-be dictator, and other bad guys. But then she met Dexter Moore, a computer software specialist who seemed to be exactly what she wasn't and craved - a genuinely nice guy, "perfectly straightforward and undeniably respectable", with no deep secrets.
She married him, had two sons, transferred to the less-dangerous analysis unit in the CIA, and kept her own secret, never telling Dexter what she did for a living. "So then she'd believed - she'd wanted to believe, she'd needed to believe - that she could put aside her cynicism to marry this man, to lead a semblance of a normal life".
As the book opens, Dexter has been offered the job opportunity of a lifetime: to move to Luxembourg to handle internet security for a private bank, with a generous living allocation and a huge pay rise. For Kate, it seems like an equally wonderful career-ending opportunity of a lifetime: an excuse to leave the secrecy of a spying job that long ago lost its drama or purpose and has simply been an impediment to family life. She envisions holidays in St Tropez and Umbria, her sons easily becoming multilingual as they mingle with schoolmates from around the world.
Thus, off go the Moores, arriving in Frankfurt, Germany, with their US passports and "eight ugly person-sized suitcases… four carry-on bags and a purse and two computer bags and two little-child knapsacks".
Of course, expats everywhere - and in particular, the spouses of the expats whose jobs dragged the whole family abroad - have long discovered that fabled foreign cities are rarely as romantic and exciting up close as they are in fable. There are passports, visas, work permits, post-forwarding, residency permits, school registration, insurance policies and bank accounts to be arranged.