Gold wins a medal for impressive timing: Chris Cleave’s adrenalized novel — which breathlessly tracks the complicated friendship and furious competition between two speed cyclists, Kate and Zoe, as they train for a fictional London 2012 Olympics — arrives just a month before the opening of the actual London 2012 Olympics. Kate is the nicer, more generous one, married to Jack, a fellow cyclist. Their 8-year-old daughter, Sophie, is critically ill with leukemia. Zoe is the angrier, sexually wilder single one, full of secrets. There’s enough Up Close and Personal material in this novel for Olympics TV producers to fill a hundred human-interest segments between qualifying sprints.
As Cleave demonstrated in his best-seller Little Bee, he is a full-hearted writer. He loves big conflicts, big emotions, big, Capital-M Moments. The drama in Gold, though, is so swollen, and the writing so pumped up with “style,” that the sentences themselves begin to get in the way of the story’s momentum — their showiness becomes an aerodynamic drag, even as the author throws himself into conveying the rigors and thrills of cycling. Like this: “She looked along the curved black line that bent gravity around the locus of her fury and called in all her demons and bound them together into one infinitely hot point of energy in the center of her.” But what rankles most is using a child’s leukemia as a tear-jerking distraction. (What are the odds that Sophie will take a turn for the worse just as the Olympics loom? Oh, the guilt versus the competitive zeal!) Ultimately Cleave pants so hard while describing what it’s like to pedal a bike and how difficult it is to succeed simultaneously as a parent and as a champion that we don’t quite feel elated — just exhausted. C+