Author: Chris Cleave
Rating: 2 / 5
Do you like Lifetime and soap operas? Then this book might be for you.
With the summer Olympics happening, I wanted to read a book on theme. Elite athletes, ambition, high stakes, rivalry… I wanted something with a little drama. But this…was a little too much, or maybe just the wrong type. This book is manipulative melodrama, more love triangle and cancer kid medical suspense than anything to do with the Olympics. I can’t really imagine it being more than a guilty pleasure because it doesn’t really resemble a serious novel to me. Not that that’s a bad thing—I love me some fluff sometimes!—but I think this novel may have been trying to be more “literary.” It felt like it couldn’t decide what to be, though. It wasn’t about the Olympics, it wasn’t about family, it wasn’t about tough choices, it wasn’t about resilience, ambition, perseverance, or dealing with the past—although I think it fancies itself to be about all those things. We don’t get any real development, only reveals and situations that felt calculated for emotional impact. We don’t get characters, we get caricatures, one-dimensional and stereotypical. It felt silly to me, sensational, contrived, and cheap.
There were some things that grated on me in smaller ways as well. Apparently Chris Cleave really hates a woman in glasses, since all references to glasses are “ugly glasses,” and “how could he love me in these glasses,” and gold medalist superfit track cyclists driving (!!!) without wearing their glasses because they couldn’t put their contacts in but they don’t want some vacuous flirty guy to see them in glasses. Women worrying that their husbands couldn’t possibly find them attractive ‘cause they’ve gained five pounds. Women using their periods as excuses to be assholes. Women longing for men to show up with flowers because they believe it would solve all their problems. Men are “awful bastards” mainly because they’re men. Also, apparently they don’t think as hard as women, and aren’t as good /“natural” at parenting, but when they engage in sexual harassment it’s all a jokey good time—maybe because they’re “perfectly adapted to being nineteen” instead of 32? Ouch. Also there’s gender essentialism, perhaps best reflected in the assertion that Luke Skywalker is “so bad at being a boy.” Err…? Besides the gender, there’s the fat shaming: “chubby yet strangely judgmental”—like your weight determines whether you’re allowed to have opinions; or paramedics saying that they have a crane to lift “ladies who just really like donuts” into stretchers and they call it the “Krispy Kreme Express” haha so funny not. And besides all that crap, how many times does Cleave mention his favorite measure of time, “a tenth of a second”? Hundreds, it feels like, although it’s probably only dozens.
There are a few good turns of phrase in here, and a few good insights, but they were far too scattered for my tastes, and were really more asides in the three ring circus of Zoe/Kate/Sophie than anything central or important in the book. It didn’t feel like Cleave did much expanding on his blunt themes: he got his point across, but it was in a very obvious and axiomatic way, with no real room for multiple angles on a situation or alternate takes on anything. It was like cardboard. If the book had been built around ideas that were a little more substantial, or even just a little more subtle, it could’ve been awesome. Even if the soap opera elements had remained and the writing was better, I would have liked it more. Often, though, it was either cliched (“Zoe was wary of the idea that on some level she might be a good person”) or awkward (“And it might not do Sophie’s health any harm to have the surfaces cleaned by someone whose heart was in it, rather than in the top one-thousandth of one percentile of the population for ventricular capacity at anaerobic threshold”—clunkyyy).
Anyway. I guess I can be hard on books sometimes; I wonder if it comes off as cranky or if I seem hard to please. The fact is, I do like Lifetime movies and soap operas from time to time. I did finish this book quickly, and the reading experience wasn’t completely devoid of enjoyability. I guess I had heard so much about this author that I was expecting something better, and when the book just delivered up some salacious story with a small smattering of Olympic flavor, I was disappointed. It wasn’t horrible; it was okay, but it feels like it just barely squeaked that out. Maybe it’s unfair to compare this book to the Olympic story I was hoping to read, but this novel just wasn’t compelling. The best parts of this book were probably the bits about track cycling strategy. Even with the slightly absurd plot devices this could have been a good book, if better writer had done a little something more with them—after all, some people do behave in stereotypical ways. You can show the flaws of people and reveal their motivations without such ham-fistedness. It felt like Cleave was just twisting the knives in his characters’ guts because he couldn’t think of anything more original to write about. Too much sensational surface drama, not enough nuance or or subtlety.