Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review of Chris Cleave's Gold: A Novel

Gold by Chris Cleave

Over a week after finishing Chris Cleave's Gold I'm still not quite sure what I thought of it. But with the Olympics starting this weekend, it's still very much in my mind. With only five characters, the story is as intensely focused as the competitions themselves. In fact, had it not moved with the breathtaking speed of an Olympic race, it might have been stiflingly claustrophobic.

Zoe Castle, Jane Meadows and Jack Argall became friends in their teens, when they all qualified for the national training program in track cycling. Zoe was a fierce and single-minded competitor, riding roughshod over any serious challenger. Jane, while more naturally gifted in the opinion of their coach, was less competitive and driven. Jane and Jack fell in love and married. While her husband and best friend were winning medals in Athens and Beijing, Kate withdrew contentedly from the program to raise her daughter Sophie and support Jack in his efforts.

Now, with Sophie eight years old, Kate has resumed her training. Over 30 now, she knows these London Olympics will be her last chance to compete for gold on the world stage. Coach Tom Voss, who missed a gold medal in the Australian Olympics by a hundredth of a second, is looking forward to having both Zoe and Kate medal this summer. The only major concern is Sophie's leukemia, which had been in remission until quite recently. With the Olympic eliminations approaching, the young family finds itself struggling to balance the demanding requirements of two athletes in intensive training with Sophie's even more urgent chemotherapy treatments.

Sophie has decided that in order to beat her cancer, she must become a Jedi knight. She watches the Star Wars movies obsessively, studying techniques so that she can zap each of the cancer cells that the dark side has planted in her rebellious body. Like many sick children, she is preternaturally sensitive to her parents' emotions and tries to hide the physical distress caused by her illness and the treatments from them. Some of the most harrowing––and humorous––passages in the book are hers. Sick from a chemo treatment, she needs to throw up. But Daddy Jack is in the upstairs bathroom warbling "Bluebird of Happiness" in the shower, Kate and Zoe are downstairs near the powder room, and Sophie doesn't want Mom to feel sad before she has to train. What to do?
"The vomit tried to come up again. Her concentration was gone... She was just Sophie again, suddenly spent, in her upstairs bedroom on Earth... She stepped off the bed, knelt on the floor, and threw up into her model of The Millennium Falcon. The action figures inside said nothing, just stared up at her in disgust."
Zoe and Sophie are the strongest characters in this story, and they are very different. Zoe is the complete competitor; no price is too high to pay for victory. While we learn her dismal history through flashbacks and conversations, her almost total self-absorption makes her a very unsympathetic character. Considering the number and variety of dirty tricks she has played on Kate, her only serious challenger, the continuing friendship of the women is astonishing.

Envisioning Kate as a serious competitor on the world stage was difficult for me; she's just too nice. I wonder how many Olympic athletes can compete only against their own previous personal best without obsessing on demolishing the competition? Zoe is baffled early in their acquaintance that Kate seemed to walk "with a space beside her, leaving room for someone to fill it if they wish." Zoe, touchy as a cat, walks alone and hisses and spits at those who attempt to befriend her.

All of the characters in this very emotional novel pay for their ambitions in pain. The author vividly describes the push of the women in training far beyond the point of exhaustion. Jack has learned that each single instant of agony can be survived if it can be perceived as unique, dissociated from every other instant. This response, learned through years of surviving painful training, enables him to deal with his daughter's agony and uncertain future one instant at a time. Even Coach Voss has destroyed his knees so badly that he has to phone for help to get out of the bathtub.

The "grand reveal" near the end of the book, while it helped to explain the ongoing friendship between Kate and Zoe, left me groaning. What a bathetic soap opera trick! But the ride left me breathless as the author cleverly ratcheted up the pace throughout the book. I will watch the upcoming competitions in London with a more informed eye, wondering a bit about the back stories and the prices paid by these young competitors and their families for this all-consuming chance at one brief moment of glory on the world stage.

Note: I received a free review copy of Gold, which was published by Simon & Schuster earlier this month. Similar reviews may appear on Amazon and GoodReads, under my user names there.


  1. I loved this book! I wasn’t so sure if I liked his previous book, Little Bee, but this one was a real winner for me (oh, groan, pardon the pun).
    I hope you don’t mind me doing this, but I’m hosting a giveaway for this book in August 2012 on my blog, Maybe your readers would be interested?

  2. Mary, hi. I haven't read Little Bee. Was that ending as cinematic as this one?