If we are to believe its book jacket, Chris Cleave’s novel “Gold” will make us breathless with anticipation, make us love our families more than we thought possible and make us wonder what kind of people we really are. I hold out a small hope that it will also cure cancer, but what “Gold” really makes me wonder is how a story about British Olympians should appear just in time for the London Olympics. You’d almost swear they planned it.
Call it one more triumph for the Chris Cleave brand. Built on the runaway success of his previous novel, “Little Bee,” it’s an enticing mix of beleaguered females, lefty worldview and zesty story lines that the author’s own promotional copy refuses to reveal in advance.
Boldly I sally forth. “Gold” is about Zoe and Kate, world-class sprint cyclists who have competed since youngest adulthood. Zoe is model-beautiful, obsessed, ruthless, vulnerable, “racing from one championship to another, bedding this man and that.”Kate is a sweet, trusting homebody, “grateful for so little,”but a demon on the bike and steely enough to rise to every crisis.
Somehow, the women have managed to become best friends despite sharing feelings for the same man — hot Scottish cyclist Jack — and for the same hunk of metal. But winning has just gotten harder thanks to a rules change that allows only one of them to represent Britain at the Olympics. Their final shot at glory hinges on a race-off that will send one woman into permanent and involuntary retirement.
Maybe something like this could happen in the real world. (Friendly rivals Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were at the top of their sport for a while, too.) But once we’ve stripped away the lycra and carbon-fiber bike frames and thrown in Cleave’s other plot elements — the down-to-the-wire finish, the critically ill child, the hushed-up paternity scandal, the 11th-hour showdown in the hospital room — evidence suggests we’ve wandered onto the back lot of Warner Bros. circa 1940. It’s not too much of a stretch to cast George Brent as clueless Jack; Pat O’Brien as the blustery, arthritic coach; and as the frenemy heroines, who better than Bette Davis and Mary Astor?
But then consider how Davis and Astor, through the force of their commitment, used to transform soap opera into opera, and you get some idea of what Cleave has to offer: talent, wit and conviction wedded to a dubious sensibility. Those contradictions were more subtly present in “Little Bee,” an exemplary exercise in voice that snagged on plot contrivances: a journalist’s theatrical suicide, an African girl detained for no clear reason on the London streets, a smart and sensitive English mother carting off her young son to a war zone.
And you still read every line, didn’t you? That’s because Cleave kick-starts his stories from the first breath and never takes his feet off the pedals. It’s fitting, then, that “Gold” comes most alive when its athletes do. “She felt the shriek of [the whistle] down her spinal column. The sound connected directly with the life she’d focused into one vengeful incandescent point. The whistle released that life into motion. She was stamping down on the pedals before her brain had heard the gun. She only became conscious twenty yards down the track. The first and last properly formed thought arrived:Oh, look at this, I’m racing.”
As usual, Cleave has done his research. His dialogue is tangy; he offers a gruelingly persuasive portrait of childhood leukemia; and his empathy for hard-used lives can produce lovely cameos: “She was skinny and pale. She had dry hair and blue eyes with dark black rings around them. Not like someone who’d been beaten, but like someone who’d been eating poison. In small amounts, quietly, and for years.” Just as often, he can toss off clinkers: “This was how Zoe seemed to him: like a future unhurriedly condensing from the white-hot gases of youth, like a star not in a rush to be formed. . . . Phil Collins’s lyrics held meaning the way a pocket mirror held the moon.”
“Gold,” in other words, has its share of dross. But, just as with those old Warner Bros. melodramas, the unabashed energy behind the enterprise can transform your skepticism into a grudging respect and enjoyment. Cleave is a storyteller who wants more than anything else to tell his story. It turns out there are worse things.
Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His most recent book is “The School of Night.”
Simon & Schuster
324 pp. $27