After the enormous popular success of his second novel (Little Bee, 2009, etc.), British author Cleave turns to the world of Olympic speed cyclists to explore the shifting sands of ambition, loyalty and love.
Tom, who just barely missed his own medal in 1968, is coaching Kate and Zoe to represent Britain at the 2012 Olympics, which the 32-year-old women know will be their last. They are best friends but fierce rivals. Zoe, who already has won four Olympic golds, lives only to race and will do anything, including sacrifice friends, ethics and her own emotional needs, to come in first. Though technically as fast, Kate is a perpetual runner -up, and compared to Zoe, she seems almost soft; her willingness to put family needs first has caused her to pass up two previous Olympic competitions. And then there is Jack, who has his own Olympic golds. He met Zoe and Kate when the three were stars in a program Tom ran to train Britain’s most talented adolescent cycling prospects. Jack was the sexy boy down from Scotland and obviously bound for glory. Although he and Zoe shared a brief, highly charged and emotionally fraught affair, Kate was the one he fell in love with and married. Their little girl, Sophie, is the novel’s real heart. Cleave has a gift for portraying difficult children who pull every heartstring. Battling leukemia and obsessed with Star Wars, Sophie furtively watches her parents’ reactions to her illness. Kate both embraces and resents that she is the one who must make the sacrifices for Sophie, while Jack’s commitment to his wife and daughter is deeper, if more complex, than Kate recognizes. Meanwhile, emotionally stunted Zoe is facing a personal crisis of her own, both public and private. Then higher-ups change the rules, and father-figure Tom must choose whether Kate or Zoe is going to the Olympics.
In weaker hands this would seem a bit contrived, but Cleave knows how to captivate with rich characters and nimble plotting.