- Arts & Entertainment
- Health & Lifestyle
- Bits & Bytes
- Events calendar
Chris Cleave’s Gold
Gold is a tremendously popular novel about three elite track cyclists. Easily, Gold was the most talked about novel of this summer’s Olympic Games. Eager to be a part of the conversation, I grabbed a copy, set aside my stacks of Canadian literature, and raced through this absolutely compelling story about three athletes who live and train in Manchester, England.
Cleave is a talented writer. He might be unmatched in his ability to manipulate a reader’s emotions. Gold is extraordinarily engaging: I don’t know anyone who has been able to put it down. However …
Ultimately, I found the book problematic in its reliance on melodrama. Gold is dependent on the story-telling strategies of soap operas. First, Cleave introduces a timid, kind, and innocent racer named Kate. Kate has a slutty and evil rival/friend named Zoe. Zoe, of course, has demons. Her competitive spirit is fueled by them. Enter Jack, a handsome and charismatic cyclist who is, again of course, a bit in love with both of them.
The betrayals! The secrets! The sabotage!
Then, to increase the tension, Gold also has a very sick child, a girl who somehow belongs to Kate, Jack, and Zoe. Cleave makes the child's illness peak at crucial competition moments just in case those scenes are not tense enough already.
One rider overcomes a broken neck to get gold in Olympics. Another cyclist trains intensely through a pregnancy and, shortly afterwards, gets an Olympic gold. Another manages to get Olympic gold while her daughter has leukemia. Any one of those scenarios on its own would stretch the limits of plausibility. Here, we have all of them together in the same story with the same group of—what?!—bedmates?
For me, it's too much: too many dramatic turns, too many scandals, too much melodrama. Also, the betrayals are, in the end, too easily reconciled. Gold is “902010 Goes to the Olympics.” I see Shannen Doherty playing Zoe.
But I would be a hypocrite if I said I did not like this book. I couldn’t put it down from the first page to the last. I cried as little Sophie’s biggest health crisis coincided with her mommy’s most important race. My heart pounded as Zoe planned her next horribly sneaky trick on poor, innocent Kate. Even as I declaimed the author’s manipulative tactics and the plot’s absurdity, I reacted exactly as Chris Cleave wanted me to react. Always.
There are also aspects of the novel I genuinely admire. The coach Tom is a spot-on, brilliant portrayal of the aging athlete who has sacrificed too much in the name of sport. I cannot remember a scene simultaneously as funny and as heartbreaking as the one with Tom on the bathroom floor and his teeth in the toilet. Cleave also does a good job of representing the discipline of these athletes, particularly in their bizarre relationship with food. And I flat-out loved the intense training and racing scenes: Cleave can make my heart pound faster, in the best way.
So what’s my problem with this novel? There was a chat about Gold on twitter recently, and female readers kept saying things like: "Kate needed bike racing as a distraction from her daughter's gruelling illness." This is what bothers me. Such a statement betrays a deep misunderstanding of the Olympic athlete’s life. Training for the Olympics is not, and could never be, a distraction. I have family members who have competed in the Olympics, and I have observed them closely. That kind of training is grueling and all-consuming in every way – emotionally, mentally, and physically. One might take up recreational marathon running, for example, as a distraction from life’s challenges. This is not the same as competing in the Olympics. The amount of energy and devotion required to be competitive on a world stage requires that the preparation itself is the athlete’s life. In that way, Gold misrepresents the lives of Olympic athletes, and the conversations that rise up around Gold are ultimately disrespectful towards Olympians.
I also wonder if an author must invoke this kind of over-the-top drama and life-or-death stakes in order to capture public attention with a sport novel. If so, what does that say about the relevance of sport (and of the Olympics) to contemporary life?
I know this is not my typical book recommendation column. I guess what I’m saying is: I’m dying to talk about this book. Go read it, and then come find me