I'll admit to being one of those women who love to watch figure skating -- one of those who is still mad that Michelle Kwan didn't win the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics -- and frankly, one of those who can barely make it once around the ice skating rink without falling down. So I approached Dreams of Gold, the story of an aspiring Olympic figure skater with great enthusiasm, and fortunately I was not disappointed.
Dreams of Gold is the story of a woman caught between two very different cultures. Maggie Campbell is the product of a marriage between an American father and a Japanese mother. But Maggie's curly hair and green eyes are one-hundred percent American. Growing up in Japan, she faced prejudice because she didn't look like a "real" Japanese girl. Finally, at age 16, after her dreams of becoming the Japanese Ladies figure skating champion were dashed, she moved to Boston. Seven years later, as a successful pairs skater, her world is once again in turmoil as her partner and lover, Clay, is hurt in a car accident. His hand sustains irreversible nerve damage, ending his ability to perform the dangerous lifts and spins that brought the couple to the brink of the American pairs championship.
With little time left to prepare for the 2002 Olympics, Maggie decides to return to Japan and seek out her old coach in a desperate bid to become a competitive singles skater again, although the odds-on favorite to win the gold medal is a young American who has long coveted Maggie's relationship with Clay. In Japan, Maggie confronts both good and bad memories from her past and renews her relationship with an enigmatic man who understands what it is like to be an outcast. Meanwhile, the callow Clay is hired by the legendary skater/commentator/promoter Lofton Weeks (whose strong resemblance to Dick Button is surely more than coincidental). His new job tests his loyalty and fidelity to Maggie.
Thomson successfully portrays the insular world of figure skating, where judging is less than objective and artistic skating is prized less than the ability to perform athletic jumps. He never gets too technical with the skating terms, but scatters enough triple Lutzes and triple toe-loops throughout to give the action scenes authentic atmosphere.
The multicultural aspect of the novel elevates it above a standard sports story, but occasionally detracts from its focus. A subplot involving Maggie's Japanese grandfather and his struggles to assert his independence from his boss seemed out of place. At times the Japanese methods of doing business are presented in a pejorative way that reflects the author's strong American preference.
But Thomson obviously admires Eastern philosophy and the insights it can add to the skating profession. While most of the other American skaters are portrayed in a negative light, Maggie's Japanese coaches are seen as wise women who know best how to cultivate the music and magic inside the young skater.
The book's narrative is sometimes disjointed and difficult to follow, as it jumps back and forth between Maggie's 18 months of preparation for the Salt Lake City Olympics and various key moments from the previous 20 years for Maggie, Clay, and several other secondary characters. But gradually the various pieces of the narrative add up to a cohesive whole, leading up to the climactic scene at the Olympics.
Dreams of Gold made me sorry that the next Winter Olympics are still two years away. I'd recommend it to any readers who want to feel the thrill a little bit early.