Simon & Schuster: 336 pp., $27
There are undoubtedly fans of Chris Cleave who will pick up his new novel, "Gold," and enjoy it as much as they did his blockbuster bestseller, "Little Bee." There is the possibility, however, that some will find it as much of a slow-moving soap opera as I did.
Which is too bad, really, for a book about two Olympic cyclists.
The two women, Zoe and Kathy, are friends and rivals (heavy on the rivals). Their lives are knit together onward from the age of 19, when they first face off competitively and are taken on by the same coach, Tom.
The two women have markedly different personalities. Zoe is cold and singularly focused on winning races, playing psychological games if necessary. She's a brunet with an icy beauty, the kind that's made her the face of Perrier.
Kate, on the other hand, is warm and kind. In her first race, at age 6, she gave up an easy victory when she stopped to help a rider who'd fallen. She's a formidable racer, but her instinct is to be giving and sweet. She is a loving wife to Jack, another world-class cyclist, and an attentive, nurturing mother to Sophie, their 8-year-old daughter.
We begin in 2012 — not just the present moment but the exact present, just before the start of the London Olympics.
At 32 and aware they're at the end of their athletic careers, both women are training to battle on the track for the Olympic gold. Jack, too, will be racing in the Olympics. Jack and Zoe have won Olympic medals, but not Kate, although she has her share of major victories. In naturally woven-in flashbacks, we see what happened in the past, both competitively and personally. More than once, Kate missed an important competition to care for Sophie.
And in 2012, Sophie's condition is particularly dire: She's facing a recurrence of leukemia.
Sophie is straight from central casting: She is precocious, more perceptive than her parents, and endlessly brave. This character combination — plus a quirky, generationally improbable obsession with "Star Wars" — seems deliberately tuned to adorable. So much so that I started to get a nagging feeling of being manipulated. Couldn't she just be a cute kid? Does she have to be a cute kid with cancer?
That's one way the book resembles a soap opera: to make things exciting, drama is ladled on. The main characters have secrets, and shocking secrets, and still more shocking secrets. If an evil twin had shown up, it would have fit right in.
Part of the problem is that Cleave doesn't have enough characters to fill his stage. There are no additional bicycling rivals, no other coaches, no trainers, no local shopkeepers, no other parents of sick children, no doctors (except for a handsome one who spends a few hours with the sexually voracious Zoe). It's unusual for a novel of this size to have such a scarcity of texture; there are few minor characters with whom the main ones can interact. There isn't anywhere for them to go except to circle back on themselves.
Which is, of course, what they're doing on the track. I'm only vaguely familiar with cycling as an Olympic sport, but Cleave does a nice job of bringing its velodromes and strategies to life. And his descriptions of riding fast, world's-fastest fast, are breathtaking. I'm less convinced in the way that "Gold's" three cyclists are Kardashian-like in drawing media attention, which is a constant pressure on them and the plot.
A twist arrives when Zoe and Kate learn that a rules change will force England to enter only one of them in the Olympics. They're forced to battle each other rather than work together. As their secrets are revealed, it becomes obvious how fraught their competition truly is.
Cleave can write a fine sentence, but this book has some serious clunkers. "Kate went into the next room to fold clothes and Jack plugged his phone into the stereo and stuck on the Proclaimers singing '500 Miles,' because it was Sophie's favorite and because what other way was there to start a day like this, with the hours of hard training still ahead and the clean rising sun the color of children's promises?" If that doesn't rub your ear the wrong way, "Gold" may be a pleasant ride.