FEMALE RIVALRIES make for excellent drama. Primetime soap operas are fueled by coifed and toned ladies in a range of ages and careers, battling each other over men, money, popularity, power. In Chris Cleave’s Gold, Zoe Castle and Kate Meadows are competing for Olympic Gold — or rather, the chance to compete for Olympic Gold — and have been training in track cycling under the same coach since they were nineteen. Now thirty-two, these women share a complex history and the same goal: to compete in the 2012 Olympics. At the start of the novel, it seems that both will go. But a new ruling declares that their coach, Tom Voss, can only send one.

Let the games begin.

Zoe and Kate might share a passion, but these women have made very different choices: Tough and beautiful Zoe has avoided personal relationships in favor of training hard and competing often. She lives alone in a towering skyrise with floor-to-ceiling windows through which she can see the National Cycling Centre. She lives on espresso, brown rice, and one-night stands. “It was hard not to feel like a ghost. Zoe held up her hand in front of her face and was amazed she couldn’t see through it.” If she doesn’t get to compete, she has nothing.

Kate is happily married to Jack, also a competitive cyclist, and together they have an eight year-old daughter, Sophie. Sophie is a resourceful, imaginative child (obsessed with “Star Wars”) and a leukemia patient. The disease had almost killed her three years earlier, and now she is fighting a recurrence. Cleave has said in interviews that he wanted to contrast Sophie’s extreme illness with the extreme health of the mega-athletes in her life. In a way, this novel is made up of contrasts: Kate’s mild nature contrasted with Zoe’s wild temperament; the intimacy of caring for a sick child contrasted with the public spectacle of the Olympics.

The book is organized in chapters that rotate through various points of view, a technique that allows us intimate vantages, but Sophie is the master of our sympathies. Wracked with nausea, pain, and fear, Sophie’s main preoccupation is protecting her parents:

There were a hundred things you could do to make Mum and Dad not worry. You could polish your own shoes and clean your teeth and get dressed nicely, even though you were so tired all you wanted to do was lie down and close your eyes. You could talk about the future — they liked it when you talked about the future, so long as it was close. If you said “Tomorrow can I go to the shops with you?” it made them happy, because it meant you were being optimistic. […] But if you said “Next year can we go to France for our holidays?” then they would get a hollow look in their eyes, and give each other those sideways glances, and say something like, “Let’s take it a day at a time, shall we?”

If you wanted them not to worry, there were also a hundred things you could not do. You could not cough, you could not be sick, and you could never say you were tired or sad. If you actually were sick there were ways to hide it, and if you actually were sad there were ways too.

This sensitivity to his characters’ experience is what makes Chris Cleave one of the most empathic writers of our time. His previous two novels are narrated by a grieving widow/mother (Incendiary) and a young Nigerian refugee (Little Bee). He is naturally attuned to his characters’ emotional life.

Skillful though he may be, not all readers want to have their heartstrings played so readily. Sophie’s dilemma is very real, yet it hovers on the cusp of melodrama. We have no choice but to care about Sophie — we are held hostage by her condition — but as much as I enjoyed being gripped, I wanted to care about these characters for other, subtler reasons. Kate and Zoe are fully realized characters, but so overtaken by their concerns (their memories, their goals) that as a reader I felt I missed out on getting-to-know-them and dove straight into fighting their causes, much like a doctor admitting a sick patient; I know their vitals and their tolerance for pain, but I am left wondering what it would be like to chat with them over dinner.

That said, the novel achieves what few else can claim: a seemingly effortless balance between tenderness and tension. Amidst the tangles of loyalty, memory and illness, Tom Voss, Zoe and Kate’s coach, remains focused on the game. Hard talking and fiercely protective of his athletes, he “still remembered how it had felt for him, back in Mexico in ‘68, to miss out on Olympic bronze by one-tenth of one second.” All his energy is funneled into determining which one of his girls will go to the Olympics. The racing scenes are tense and rife with detail. Cleave is writing about a world in which seconds matter, both on and off the track. This urgency makes Gold a gripping read, whether you’re in it for the sport or the sentiment.


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