Watching the bodies of Olympic athletes move so beautifully and powerfully, we want to get inside their heads. We want to be them, and we believe if we can get inside their heads, maybe, just a little bit, we can. But listening to athletes get interviewed after a match, answering the same questions with the same answers again and again, is never as satisfying as we wish it would be. (Have you seen the “Ryan Lochte Is Terrible at Interviews” video on YouTube?)
In his carefully timed novel “Gold,” British author and journalist Chris Cleave gets inside the minds of these athletes and aspires to more eloquently express the answers to all those questions we have about what it’s really like to be an Olympic athlete. In the end though, it’s not the minds of Olympic athletes we want to slide into—it’s their bodies. That’s not something a book can do. You’ll need a personal trainer if you want to get anywhere near that.
Cleave’s cyclists have past histories, emotions and complicated lives off the track, but Zoe, Kate and Jack—the three bicyclists—seem carefully developed to achieve complexity without losing their likeability. They’ve been polished beyond the point of becoming wonderful protagonists, then thrown into an Olympian pit of blood, sweat and tears. “Gold” mines a triad of tearjerker genres: the love triangle, the sports story and the kid with cancer. (Bronze, silver, gold?) Cleave’s manipulation of the reader is about as hidden as a man’s family jewels in a pair of bicycle shorts.
Cleave may have developed this skill while writing the “Little Bee” (2009) a feel-good movie in novel form that’s currently being adapted for the big screen and starring Nicole Kidman. “Little Bee” garnered criticism for its contrived plot and lack of depth. But it was un-put-downable and it brought attention to the real-life atrocities undergone by refugees, both in their native homes and at asylum detention centers.
In “Gold,” Cleave’s subject is too petty and his writing not well-wrought enough to keep up with his attempts to tug at heartstrings. Like any good race, “Gold” does become a nail-biter in the end, but the laps it takes to get there feel interminable. I’ll stick to streaming the Olympics on the small screen. (Ella Christoph)
By Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $27
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