When I first read a blurb about Chris Cleave’s new novel, Gold, my initial reaction was basically, “thanks, but no thanks.” A book about athletes? Olympic cycling competitions? Can you actually hear my brain melting?
Luckily, I ended up going with my second, more reasoned reaction, which was more along the lines of “Bicycling? Sounds boring, but… I did like Little Bee, so let’s give it a whirl.” Ha! A whirl! Funny me.
Gold is the story of two British bicycle racers, Zoe and Kate, who have been best friends and arch-rivals since meeting at age nineteen as they joined the elite prospects program of the British national cycling team. Zoe is a damaged soul, who copes with a childhood trauma by pouring everything she has into her competitions. On the track, she’s all power and focus. Off the track, she’s a mess. Kate is kinder and gentler, a fierce competitor but one who also allows herself to feel deeply. Both rise to the top of their sport, competing against each other in the international arena, year after year, to be the one who captures the gold.
Zoe’s extreme need to win is illustrated early on in Gold, when her coach tells her before a race that the worst that can happen is that she wins silver instead of gold, and Zoe responds, “I’d rather fucking die.”
Zoe becomes a superstar after winning four gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, while Kate stays home to take care of her infant daughter. Time and again, Kate misses her chance, and as Gold unfolds, the 2012 Olympics represent the final shot for both women – at age 32, Zoe needs to go out with a blaze of glory and Kate is desperate to claim the gold that has narrowly slipped through her fingers throughout her career.
The action in Gold takes place over three pivotal days in the April leading up to the London games. When the IOC makes a sudden rule change, Kate and Zoe’s competition reaches a boiling point, and it becomes clear that only one of them can walk away a winner. As they deal with their hopes, needs, and fears, and their burning thirst for gold, we’re treated to flashbacks that shed crucial light on their tortured past as competitors and friends.
This passage nicely sums up the central internal struggle for Gold‘s characters:
It would be harder for them than they realized, because outside those exalted two minutes of each race, they were condemned to be ordinary people burdened with minds and bodies and human sentimental attachments that were never designed to accelerate to such velocities. They would go through agonies of decompression, like divers returning too quickly from the deep.
Let me stay right up front that I could not put this book down. I started it on Friday night, and finished it on Sunday night right before the stroke of midnight. I stayed up way too late, and even gave up watching some critical TV because I just couldn’t go to bed without knowing how it all ended.
That said, I do have a few minor quibbles about Gold.
Quibble 1: Looming largest is the fact that Zoe is so damaged, so incapable of empathy and compassion, that I had a hard time believing that she and Kate had an actual friendship. Zoe does horrific things to Kate, on and off the track, in order to gain the psychological advantage in competition. Zoe is never “off”; everything she does comes from her need to win. Kate is a feeling, caring woman, and while she takes Zoe in and tries to nurture her, I didn’t quite buy that she would ever trust her.
Quibble 2: Kate is married to Jack, also a gold-medalist in cycling, and their daughter Sophie is an eight-year-old leukemia patient with a Star Wars fixation. I thought the Star Wars elements were a bit overdone; I get that this was supposed to be Sophie’s coping mechanism, but it got in the way of the drama at times and gave Sophie an internal voice that just didn’t ring true for a child her age.
Quibble 3: As an American reader, I wasn’t sure what to make of the superstardom of the British cycling champions. I’m sure I couldn’t name a single American athlete in this sport, and I had to wonder as I read whether cycling really is such a big deal in Britain (note: based on my quick and dirty internet research, the answer would be yes) and whether athletes such as Zoe and Kate really would become faces on billboards, hounded by paparazzi and plastered across tabloids. (This part I couldn’t quite figure out — I’d appreciate enlightenment!)
Quibble 4: The final 10 pages or so seemed a bit tacked on to me, as if the author reached the end and was just trying to tie it all up neatly and quickly. Still, I can’t complain too much. The fact is, I couldn’t stop reading, and once I got to within 50 pages of the end, there was no way I was going to unglue my eyes from this book until I’d read every last word.
Wrapping it all up:
I was concerned that I would be bored by, or at the very least uninterested in, the cycling focus of Gold. Fortunately, I was proven wrong. As a total newbie to the sport of competitive track cycling, I found the descriptions of training regimens, the extreme stress on the body, the physical and psychological strategizing of racing, and the adrenaline-pumping rush of competing in front of a crowd compelling indeed. Being a person whose main form of competition is the annual Goodreads reading challenge, I didn’t think I’d be able to relate to a story about hardcore athletes. Again, I was wrong, and the glimpse into a new world was for me quite fascinating.
I realize I’ve given short shrift in this review to Kate, Jack, and Sophie’s home life and daily struggles. Their family is arguably as much the centerpiece of Gold as the racing is, but I’ve avoided saying too much about this part of the book in order to avoid spoilers and possibly softening the impact of the family’s unfolding calamity for other readers.. Suffice it to say, the relationships were quite lovingly drawn, and I often felt the sorrows of the parents as a punch right to the stomach.
I must say that I wish I’d read Gold when it was released earlier this summer, prior to the London Olympics. I can only imagine how thrilling it would have been to read this book and then watch the real athletes pouring their hearts into their races. Even so, I found myself rushing to Google “Olympic cycling events” immediately upon finishing this book, and I can tell already that four years from now, when the next Olympics roll around, I’ll be keeping an eye on a new sport.