What makes a champion? That question underlies Chris Cleave’s “Gold,” a novel about cyclists training for the 2012 Olympics in London.
With two women who are best friends and rivals, a man who’s the husband of one and the ex-lover of the other, a melancholy coach and a brave little leukemia victim all living in Manchester, England, the possibilities for suspense, and soap, are rife. Cleave doesn’t pass one up.
He makes his cyclists 32 and declares 2012 their last chance to bring home gold. Two of them, Zoe and Jack, have first-place medals from Athens in 2004; the third, Jack’s wife, Kate, missed out because taking care of their new baby, Sophie, put a crimp in her training.
Sophie’s illness, a later development, kept Kate from racing in Beijing in 2008, so the plot turns largely on whether Kate is going to make it to London: a serious question, since Sophie’s cancer, which had been in remission, has returned.
We see much of the story through the eyes of the women’s coach, Tom, who missed out on an Olympic bronze in 1968 by a 10th of a second, then wrecked his family by being over-demanding and his body by overtraining.
Of the five, Zoe is the most fascinating: a near-psychotic competitor with no qualms about messing with her best friend’s mind if it means gaining an advantage on the track. Cleave is the kind of novelist who feels he has to account for Zoe’s weirdness by dredging up a terrible event in her past.
(He saves the most brutal details for the climax, so he can use them to interrupt a tense race and torture the reader, who’s already sweating bullets from the suspense.)
Jack and Kate, in contrast, are good-natured doofuses who just happen to be among the fastest human beings on wheels. If Cleave over-explains Zoe, he fails to pinpoint the lust for victory that makes these two champions. When it’s a choice between racing and rushing to their sick child’s bedside, they never hesitate.
I didn’t buy it. I certainly believed that Jack and Kate would do the right thing when Sophie needed them, but not that there wouldn’t be a split second (or maybe more) of aching to get back on their bikes and win.
We’ve all had that ego-driven moment of wanting to shirk a responsibility -- even one we’ve eagerly sought -- before our better nature prevailed. It’s a real subject, but Cleave doesn’t explore it.
He’s much more enterprising with Sophie, the chemo-depleted eight-year-old. Whatever skepticism you may have about her parents’ commitment to victory, it’s easy to believe she’s the daughter of champions.
Sophie is a stoic little sufferer aghast at the thought of holding her parents back. A perversely funny scene in which she vomits secretly because she doesn’t want to worry them, then has to clean up the mess without their noticing, shows Cleave doing what he does best: etching sentiment with acid instead of syrup.
But the good will he’s accumulated dissipates when he sets Zoe against Kate in a to-the-death match and cross-cuts it with Jack rushing a possibly dying Sophie to the hospital. Will Kate find out? Will it give Zoe the edge she needs to trounce her rival? Will Sophie die?
It works -- I admit it. But it’s an awful way to win.
“Gold” is published by Simon & Schuster in the U.S. and Sceptre in the U.K. (384 pages, $27, 16.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on auctions and James Pressley on business books.