Jenny Shank's Reviews > Gold

Gold by Chris Cleave
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's review
Jul 29, 2012

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I try to avoid reading other reviews of books I’m reviewing until after I’ve turned my review into my editor. The only exception to this is when I want to double check that my reading of a murky plot point was correct. Gold was the first novel by Chris Cleave I’d read, and I knew that he had a reputation for writing literate and popular books, so I was surprised when I found the opening pages of it so off-putting.

Often my first impression of a book is the one that I carry through to the end of it, but there have been a few times when my initial impression of a book is overturned by what comes later. One other example of this is Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” which was tedious at the beginning but became riveting about a hundred pages in. Likewise, Gold grew on me. The plot became exciting and the characters better developed. After I turned in my review, I read some other reviews of it, such as the one in the New York Times, and although I didn’t write this in my review, I agree with what they said that the sections about the cancer-stricken child feel manipulative. It’s hard to write about sick kids with the appropriate touch that Lorrie Moore managed, for example, in “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”

Anyway, here’s my review that ran in the Dallas Morning News:

Gold by Chris Cleave Takes Readers On a Spin

By JENNY SHANK Special Contributor
Published: 27 July 2012 12:18 PM

Chris Cleave’s new novel, Gold, which tells the story of three friends involved in a love triangle competing to make the British cycling team for the 2012 London Olympics, recovers from its wobbly start.

Gold opens with some flat descriptions, such as this of Zoe as she prepares to win the 2004 Olympic gold medal in sprint cycling: “Magazines loved her. She looked good in clothes. She was beautiful.” Cleave uses unnecessary words that adverb referees Mark Twain and Stephen King would blow the whistle on, and he inflicts several strained metaphors and clichés, often involving the heart. Zoe’s cardiac system is busy — “her heart surged,” and a few pages later, her “heart was still snagged on the wire of the fence her friend had put up between them.”

But you can’t keep a pro like the international best-selling author of Little Bee down for long. Cleave writes of the physical experience of cycling at top speed with clarity and vigor. After the warm-up chapters, Gold takes off and develops into a gripping tale with many surprising turns on the way to its photo-finish climax.

As the book opens, Zoe is in Athens, racing for gold, while her training partner Kate is home in Manchester. “She had shared a coach with Zoe and trained with her and beaten her in the Nationals and the Worlds,” Cleave writes. “And then, in the final year of preparation for Athens, baby Sophie had arrived.” Adding to the sting of missing the Olympics is the fact that Kate’s fiancé, Jack Argall, is also in Athens racing for gold, and we soon learn that there is some tortured romantic history between Zoe and Jack, and that Zoe, a psychological train- wreck, can never be trusted.

The narrative skips ahead to 2012, when Sophie is 8 and suffering from leukemia. Zoe and Jack, now married, divide their days into four-hour chunks, trading off training for the Olympics and caring for Sophie. Cleave writes several chapters from the perspective of Sophie, who is obsessed with Star Wars and sees her fight against leukemia as the effort to fire “the Death Star’s destructor beam into the limitless constellations of space and hit exactly the right target.” The Sophie chapters are full of convincing details that prove Zoe’s eventual realization that “looking after a very sick child was the Olympics of parenting.”

Cleave ratchets up the suspense as the British Olympic committee announces only one cyclist can compete in the 2012 Olympics. The mystery of the three cyclists deepens as Cleave reveals their pasts, detailing the grief that drove Zoe to become a Machiavellian competitor who uses clever tricks to destabilize her opponents, such as sending a text message from Jack’s phone to hers that she knows Kate will see.

As Zoe and Kate race to determine who will represent Britain at the Olympics and Sophie struggles through a health scare, the pages of Gold fly by, leaving the reader’s pulse as quickened as those of the athletes.

Jenny Shank’s first novel, The Ringer, is a finalist for the High Plains Book Award in fiction.

Chris Cleave
(Simon & Schuster, $27)
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