You might recognize Chris Cleave’s name from the significant success of his 2009 bestseller, Little Bee. I did not read that one. But his new book, Gold, appealed to me: for starters and most obviously, it stars two female Olympic track cyclists. This is a rather obscure sport (particularly in the US) that I have competed in. Also it came recommended to me personally. Of course I was going to give it a go.
Hm. I wanted to like this book, for its subject matter if for nothing else. But there are two flaws in that thinking: first, subject matter alone rarely makes for an enjoyable read. Just because a book is about baseball won’t necessarily do it for a baseball player or fan. Secondly, as it turns out, I was too close to this sport. I’m sure Cleave did some research – he had some terms and concepts down, certainly – but he made several errors of inaccuracy that I believe are due to track cycling’s obscurity, and the public’s low awareness. These errors will go unnoticed by a large percentage of the average readership. In this respect I’m far from the ideal reader: I’m so close to the sport that I spot the errors and to me they are egregious. They rankled.
Unfortunately that’s not all that bothered me about this book. I found the characters to be a little one-dimensional (all good, all bad) and unbelievable. Really, the Olympic gold medalist is also model-gorgeous and could make a living posing for photographs?? Come on. (Okay, I guess there’s always Lolo Jones…) And the dialog was stiff, too. Particularly the parent-child dialog: every conversation was a heart-to-heart. I don’t think children really open up and get earnest and profound every time they talk to their parents (at any age). It didn’t feel real, because there were no mundane moments. And here’s the final kicker, fair warning to any who may be sensitive to such things: there is a (fairly central) little girl with cancer. That was a bit much for me personally, considering that I work full-time at a cancer hospital and therefore see enough of this. Just a personal reaction.
I made it a little better than halfway through this book, which sort of surprises me. I was certainly frustrated, annoyed, exasperated with it much earlier than that: in fact, I can pinpoint it for you. I was impatient with the first chapter’s interactions between Zoe and her coach, Tom; but I was really annoyed for the first time on page 11, when Jack relates that Zoe has won her first sprint and he has to get off the phone because her second is starting. The second ride of gold-medal round sprints should follow the first by more than an hour; putting them right back-to-back like that is completely unrealistic and was the first sign that the reality of track cycling would not be taken too seriously in this book.
But I made it past halfway. Why? I’m not sure. I was hoping it would get better? I cared what happened to the characters? But I didn’t, really; I’ve walked away not knowing the outcome of OH so many dramas, and that’s okay. Cleave failed to make me invest in his characters because he failed to make them fully human.
I didn’t read Little Bee; maybe it’s better than this. But Gold didn’t work for me at all.
Minor redemptive points: Emilia Fox’s audio narration was fine. And the only character I liked, related to, felt was human, was the coach. Some of his moments of self-doubt and retrospection felt real. More people like Tom in my fiction, please.