Gold, by Chris Cleave. (Simon & Schuster; 336 pages; $27)
Chris Cleave's latest novel lives and breathes, sweats and suffers at the harrowing place where ambition collides with sacrifice. That it arrived on the eve of the 2012 Olympic Games in London is perfect timing on the part of Cleave and publisher Simon & Schuster, but Gold would be first class anytime, anywhere. It's an adrenaline-fueled drama about winning and losing, in the velodrome and daily existence, an explosive exploration of the cost of success and the way sports competition can spill unhappily into life. It will force you to reconsider the definition of "victory," and it will leave you breathless, like you've just finished a race without all that training and exertion.
Cleave, whose first book was the post 9/11 novel Incendiary, set the bar scarily high with his last work, the politically charged Little Bee, one of the most astonishing novels of the past several years. (Simon & Schuster clearly hopes to rekindle fond memories with Gold's cover art, which mimics Little Bee.)
In Little Bee, he contrasted the lives of two very different women -- an unhappy British mother and an illegal Nigerian immigrant -- thrown together by shocking events. In Gold, he also centers his story on two remarkable women, champion British cyclists Kate and Zoe, though this time his characters share a common goal as well as an uneasy friendship.
Good-hearted Kate and fierce, manipulative Zoe have competed against each other since they were 19, which also happens to be when they met Jack, another rising star of the cycling world whom Kate will eventually marry. All three are top athletes in peak condition, but Jack's competition seems far too inadequate to beat him, whereas Kate and Zoe are evenly matched, though their styles vary wildly.
Zoe, though, is the more successful of the two, with the gold from Athens and Beijing to prove it. She's the star of British cycling, with eye-catching Perrier ads splashed all over the country, and she will continue to be -- provided she wins again in London. The 2012 games are destined to be the grand finale for all three cyclists, who have entered their early 30s and must consider the next stage of their careers.
But fate is a player in these games, too, more devastating than a strained muscle, a blown tire, or an ill-considered one-night stand with a guy who will spew his erotic story on Facebook. Kate and Jack's daughter, Sophie, is diagnosed with leukemia, and her illness shifts the course for all three athletes.
Cleave's nonchronological narrative peels back the past at opportune times, revealing new depths to his characters and story as he weaves from the early, stormy days of the three-way friendship to the tense trials for the London games.
He introduces Tom, a former Olympic hopeful who trains Kate and Zoe and who marvels at their differences: "He wasn't supposed to have a favorite, and the truth was that he didn't. Kate was the more naturally gifted rider, Zoe leveled the score with pure determination." Cleave explains the polar opposites more succinctly: "There were two kinds of people when a light turned red. One kind accelerated, the other kind braked." Zoe is the first kind, Kate the second. But can you still win even if you sometimes need to brake?
A child with a potentially fatal disease can tip a story into sentimentality, but Cleave writes straightforwardly from Sophie's perspective, avoiding maudlin moments. A Star Wars buff who works hard to hide how sick she feels because she doesn't want to worry her family, Sophie understands more about manipulation and playing through pain than her competitive parents could ever know: "If you were in the car, you could kick the back of the seat. That made them annoyed, which was the opposite of scared. If you were in the house, you had more choices. You could answer back or be lippy, which made you seem less ill. You could make it look like you'd eaten all your toast, even if you had to post it down your T-shirt and flush it in the toilet later. You could play boys' games like 'Star Wars' that had fighting and spaceships and made you look tough, even if you weren't tough enough to ride a bike."
The racing scenes are exhilarating, but the most thrilling moments happen off the track, between these people who need so badly to win. In one scene, Tom and Zoe are locked in a room at the Athens games, waiting for the moment when she'll head to the starting line. In another, Kate briefly entertains the idea that motherhood could obliterate her desire to compete: "What good did it ever do anyone to ride themselves back to their point of origin?" she thinks, then has to smile at her own lack of honesty: "Oh, who am I kidding?"
In such clear-eyed moments, Gold truly shines, and Cleave proves again that if writing were an Olympic sport, he'd be vying for a medal.