Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand was my favourite book last year, so I was incredibly excited to get hold of his new novel, Gold, which follows the fortunes of three Olympians preparing for London 2012. There is Zoe, the beautiful but troubled cycling fanatic; Kate, who is sweet and good-hearted but nevertheless Zoe’s biggest competition; and Jack, the happy go-lucky boy racer who is married to Kate, though Zoe has come between them more than once during their relationship. The final piece to the puzzle is Sophie, Jack and Kate’s Star Wars obsessed daughter who, as the Olympics approaches, is battling with leukaemia. When the rules of the Olympics are changed (as they were in real life, so that only one competitor from each country can compete in certain events) Kate and Zoe can no longer race each other to the gold as they’ve long expected to and their lives are turned upside down.
Cleave says at the beginning of Gold: “the way you [the readers] talked about my last book gave me the licence to push myself even harder with the next one. You showed me that there are intelligent, warm-blooded, curious readers out there who I can write up to.” I was therefore hoping for something hard-hitting and engrossing – but on that note, I was pretty disappointed. I hate to say this as I wanted so much to love this book – but I have to. The characters veered off into cliché far too often for my liking. Zoe was the stereotypical troubled but talented tearaway – with the ubiquitous tragic event in her past making her who she is today. Kate is a saint, bland and self-effacing, and Jack is just a general lovely dad type. None of them really grabbed me and neither did the story – at least not in the way The Other Hand did.
To be fair to Gold, it was still very good. Cleave’s style is accessible and I think his books will always be readable and entertaining. He got me really excited about the Olympics and gave me a real depth of appreciation for what the athletes (and cyclists in particular) go through in the attempt to achieve their dreams. However, as much as I enjoyed the atmosphere Cleave creates in Gold, and as much as it did become a page turner when the agonising choices kicked in and disaster began to loom large over the athletes’ (and sick Sophie’s) lives, I just didn’t feel like the story had the same depth as The Other Hand. There are so many Zoes out there in the world of fiction that the hard-girl-hiding-private-pain thing feels a bit obvious and I didn’t think she was really that three-dimensional.
No doubt if I didn’t have such high expectations I would have enjoyed this book more, although I wouldn’t have been blown away. The author has praised his publisher for giving him the three years it took to write this book, saying “kudos to them for that, because it takes guts and conviction to resist the commercial pressure to bang out half-baked books.” And it does indeed, but I fear that this approach doesn’t show in Gold. Rather than using the platform created by The Other Hand to do something outrageous, Cleave seems to have gone for a basic, safe crowd-pleaser. It would be hard to hate Gold but it’s hard to fall in love with it too. It was a great read for the Olympics and a good general read but I expected so much more from my new favourite author. Maybe next time.