Friday, June 15, 2012


by Chris Cleave, Simon and Schuster, July 2012 
... a great summer Olympics story with believable characters and real life relationships beautifully written
 A few spoilers.  Just in time for the 2012 summer Olympics we have a powerful story of competitive Olympic cyclists.  Kate, Zoe and Jack meet in the late 1990s as nineteen year olds when they joined the development program for British cyclists.  They are coached by an older cyclist Tom who in an earlier era missed winning an Olympic gold medal by a tenth of a second.  The story opens at the Athens Olympics in 2004 as Zoe wins a gold medal and Kate is at home with her infant child Sophie.  The back-story for each of these cyclists is told in small flashback segments.  Zoe and Kate are friendly rivals from the first time they meet.  Both are fierce competitors in very different ways.  Zoe looks for every advantage, going so far as to compete with Kate for Jack’s affections just to gain a psychological advantage over Kate.  Zoe who has suppressed her emotions struggles with this dark side of her personality and has no life beyond the velodrome.  Kate who has married Jack after forgiving him for his dalliance with Zoe is just as competitive but has a softer side to her.  She and Jack have a daughter Sophie.  Sophie was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia as the Beijing Olympics opened.  Kate misses the chance to compete and flies home with Sophie to begin treatment.  The story now shifts to 2012 and Sophie has had a reoccurrence of the disease that both Jack and Kate thought cured.  As the London Olympics approach Kate and Zoe are locked in a struggle as only one of them will be able to compete in the Olympics.  The stage is now set for the final struggle between Kate and Zoe, let the action begin!
I liked this story.  The subject of competitive cycling is well examined; these athletes and I’m sure most top tier competitors live lives that revolve around gaining even small advantages that will allow them to succeed.  Every morsel of food they eat is dictated by a nutritionist, every hour of their days is programmed, and every workout they perform is scripted.  The racing scenes are thrilling. 
The writing in this novel is excellent, not overly descriptive but flawless in telling the story.  The real strength of this novel though is in the character development.  All of the major characters are complicated and complex.  I especially thought that Sophie was a really well imagined character.  She speaks in her own voice and has created an alternate universe (Star Wars worlds) where she channels her pain and suffering.  She is well tuned to her parents' fears and works to hide her pain from them.  Impossible not to like and root for her!  The Zoe character has a back-story that when told does explain her emotional struggles and her inability to sustain a normal relationship with anyone.    I think that you must buy into the friendship between Zoe and Kate to accept the fact that Zoe allows Kate to rejoin a pivotal race late in the book.  I was right on the edge with this but in the end it did work for me.  I did wonder (maybe I did know) though why Kate and Jack allowed Zoe to stay in their lives as she was clearly an unstable person.
This is a great summer Olympics story with believable characters and real life relationships beautifully written.  For Chris Cleave a worthy follow-up to his runaway bestseller Little Bee.
I read an advanced copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

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