As the guy who knows how to read over here at Drunkcyclist, I often get books sent to me for reviews; this is the first time a big publishing house has taken notice of our modest little website, so I was pretty eager to do a review of a major author’s book. That book is Gold by Chris Cleave.
The book arrived and the first thing I thought was, this is the first time I’ve seen a decent book jacket in a while. I guess that’s one of the perks of being a major author: lots of creative support. Cleave has written other books I’d heard of but hadn’t picked up, most notably Little Bee. I didn’t have a ton of interest in Little Bee, but Gold was immediately interesting to me because the story focuses on two female track cyclists competing for spots in the London Olympics. When you delve into the first few chapters, however, it’s rather apparent that the story is not going to be about cycling; it is, instead, going to be about cyclists. Further than that, it is going to be about the families of cyclists.
In this particular instance, we are introduced first to Zoe, a troubled yet focused cyclist about to take the track at a past Olympics. Her intensity is immediately apparent, and that intensity does not let up throughout the story as we learn more about her twisted relationship with her best friend, Kate, who is the complete antithesis to Zoe. Kate is sweet (sometimes saccharine), devoted to her husband and daughter, and at times naive, gullible, and a pushover. It remained inexplicable throughout the story why Kate remains friends with the caustic and conniving Zoe, but there you have it: the set-up. As the two women hit their 30s and gear up for a chance to reach one more Olympic games in London before their careers are over, the real tension arises…they will go head-to-head for the last spot, which takes on new weight when we discover that Kate has missed her chance at Olympic gold more than once.
To me, Zoe was the most fascinating character. I kept picturing her as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: tons of badass packed into a hot cyclist’s body. But her facade wears thin after a couple hundred pages, and she comes across as exceptionally self-centered. I just couldn’t imagine why Kate and Jack would stick by her after all those years, nor why anyone would want to associate with her at all. When her impetus for cycling away from her demons gets revealed, I wasn’t convinced. Her promiscuity and abrasiveness make her interesting and fun to a point, but she also occasionally transforms into that one high school sophomore with a vanity complex and a rich daddy. It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone so completely entitled. She’s a fun read, though, and I found myself cheering for her often.
One thing I really liked about the book was Cleave’s ability to humanize the athletes. The story takes place in and around London, but I thought this was applicable in the U.S. particularly. We tend to have a wee bit of hero worship here in the states, especially when it comes to athletes, and we rarely get a glimpse into those lives until they do something so stupid they end up on the front page of the newspaper. Cleave does a fine job of giving the reader a glimpse into the marriage of Kate and Jack, which is staggeringly normal. They handle fame as though it’s just office breakroom gossip, and their focus is on real emotions, real stresses, and real daily grinds. Zoe, on the other hand, embraces her fame and takes advantage of sponsorship deals that have her plastered on billboards all over town; this not only damages her psyche, but also affects the way people perceive her. Cleave handled this paradigm without becoming trite or preachy, making Gold exceptionally readable during such analysis.
Cleave writes the cycling scenes well, and in my mind, those were the best scenes in the book. Unfortunately, these scenes are few and far between. Instead, we hear more about Kate’s relationship with her husband Jack, and their ailing daughter Sophie, who is all-too-bravely fighting Leukemia at age eight. I found Sophie irritating at times, though I did find myself pulling for her. Cleave’s method for keeping her grounded as an eight year old was to have her lost in a Star Wars fantasy pretty constantly. This was the most annoying and uninteresting part—or parts—of the book. I found myself wanting to skip ahead because the sentimentality of it all got so cloying I couldn’t stand it; I have to admit, though, that I’ve never been a Star Wars fan, which may make me a bit biased. Sophie’s battle with Leukemia acts as the glue that holds Jack, Kate, and Zoe together, and Sophie herself seems more emotionally developed than the three adults combined. While sweet, I found this pretty unbelievable.
Sophie’s battle with Leukemia opened up opportunities for the most sentimental and cloying parts of the book, which got annoying. I feel like the story would have progressed more quickly and more believably without her in it, but I understand why she’s there. As far as the audience Cleave is trying to reach, well, if he was looking to reach female cyclists, he nailed it. But that’s a pretty limited audience. Guys, you might find yourself getting bored with the pacing of this book, unless you’re the sentimental type. Cleave’s analysis of female relationships was fairly compelling, though I wonder how accurate it was. I suppose the relationship between female friends who have such intense competition between them might be different than, say, the relationship between two women who grow to know each other over tea or casual runs through the park with strollers; the analysis of female athletes in particular was interesting throughout. My one complaint was the characterization of Kate. I thought she was a bit too much of a pushover, which made me question why she had a competitive bone in her body to begin with.
For the most part, Cleave’s story moves quickly and it is very engaging. I zipped through the book, and while I can’t say I really cared too much about the characters, I was constantly interested in finding out what happened next.
That brings me to my biggest gripe.
Most of you DC readers know I’m a writer myself, which means I’m either in awe of published writers or completely disgusted by their writing. In this case, I was not in awe of Cleave’s writing, though I won’t go as far as to say I was disgusted. I found it overly sentimental, and every few pages he would lay down a clunker of a line that would have me rolling my eyes. Similes and metaphors that just went on and on endlessly were part of Cleave’s routine, and as the story lost steam in some parts, the clunkers came more often. Cleave nailed the plot pretty well, but if he’d spent half as much time on his language as he did on his plot, he’d have a helluva book here.
So is this a book for cyclists? No. The cycling scenes are entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but the main characters easily could have been swimmers, or shot putters, or runners. Is this a book for anyone with a competitive spirit? Damn right it is. Whenever Kate and Zoe went head to head, I was there, watching the tires zip on the sloped walls of the velodrome, feeling the pumped calves and lactate-addled thighs.
Overall, I’d give this book 3 out of 5 Spores.by