Ages ago, Carrie and I discussed potential blockbusters we could write. What about one like Footballers Wives but about the Tour de France? The hotels, the podium girls, the lads, the scandals, le ventoux. Eventually, we dismissed this as an insane idea that would never sell.
Had we done any research, rather than discuss the idea idly, we’d have discovered it’d already been done.
(Arrow Books, 2000)
Catriona (Cat) McCabe is a budding cycling journalist nursing a broken heart. She gets a gig as the Guardian correspondent covering the Tour de France, spending three weeks in the travelling village that is the greatest of the Grand Tours. In the process she makes friends in the press corp and on the teams, and finds a new romance.
I’ve said before that I enjoy romance novels. Sadly, I don’t enjoy this sort of bonkbuster.
There are some good elements. The Tour is a great hook for a novel, offering drama, surprises and people on the very edge. Each chapter is a day of the ride, so you get a sense of the structure of the Tour. I actually liked a section from the point of view of the fictional sprinter, Luca Jones, as he wins his first ever stage. And I’m amused that Catriona appears to have been named so her nickname of Cat mimics the Cat 4, Cat 3 etc climbs of the Tour.
But the prose.
The tenses are all over the place, skipping from third person present tense by one character to third person past tense from another within the same paragraph. There’s an authorial voice that uses first person singular and/or plural (always in italics) and has conversations with the characters so that they are answering questions instead of having internal monologues. I’m a believer in the idea that you can break the rules of written English for dramatic effect. But Cat doesn’t make it clear if North is deliberately doing this or is just rather sloppy.
Worst still are the supposed race report articles Cat submits to the Guardian. Here’s the opening sentence of an actual race report by the Guardian this year:
After more than 2,000 miles of racing over the past three weeks, exhaustion finally caught up with Andy Schleck today.
There’s a who (Andy Schleck), a what (he was exhausted) and a why (2,000 miles in three weeks). You’ll read on to find out the details.
Here’s one of Cat’s:
Against the shimmer of lavender fields and the stab of cypress trees, amidst the rustic stone buildings tiled in terracotta, under the gaze of the inky mountains of the Vaucluse, the Tour de France found itself in the midst of a Cézanne painting.
As all the journalists I’ve trained with would tell you, that 43 word sentence would be cut. It’s very poetic but poetry comes after the who, what, where, when, how and why of reporting. The opening para needs to contain some key fact other than Provence is rather pretty. And opening sentences tend towards 20 words.
It’s not that North didn’t do her research: the acknowledgements thank David Millar (Scottish rider, once dirty now clean) and Alasdair Fotheringham (one of the two Fotheringham brothers who are regarded as great cycling writers). She loves the Tour, it’s clear, but this is not a great cycling novel.
And let’s not even wonder how Django McCabe came to be named…