Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan


There are some mild spoilers in this review, though I refrain from revealing the major plot points or ending. If you’ve read the novel and want to have a proper gab about it, please contact me on twitter (@LeedsBookClub) or via email!
This book was sent out to me for review by Waterstones. Visit their profile page for Sweet Tooth HERE!

BLURB (from Amazon)

Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge, and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. The year is 1972. Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency. The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight goes on, especially in the cultural sphere.

Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a ‘secret mission’ which brings her into the literary world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life? And who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one.

McEwan’s mastery dazzles us in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal and intrigue, love, and the invented self.

I can’t quite decide if Sweet Tooth is a novel or the literary equivalent of a bowl of chocolate* for book lovers!
Ian McEwan is often loudly hailed as one of the finest of his generation. This novel would certainly seem to cement his position. Indeed he is becoming part of a select stable of authors whose prowess only increases with each release – Margaret Atwood, Iain (M)Banks – his contemporaries are few and far between. 
This novel has been widely sold as a spy thriller. However, that’s not how it read to me. It’s the oldest tale of them all – a love story. A classic girl meets boy. There are somewhat convoluted complications and the inherent will they won’t/they story wrapped up in political intrigue and espionage. 

This is compounded I think by the authors side references to the social and economic upheaval occurring in 1972. However, as the main character has no real interest – outside of impressing a boyfriend – we never focus on them. This was a feature of #LBC3Reads book The Paris Wife and was something that frustrated all discussing it. Here however, I found myself wracking my brain (more frequently wikipedia) for more details of some throwaway background news story. 
I loved the contrasts delicately described within Sweet Tooth. The differences between Serena and her sister were deftly drawn without prejudice for either lifestyle choice. Similarly, the contrasts between the comfortable middle-class lifestyle that Serena had been raised in with the love nest she enjoyed with Tom. The modesty of their lives – painstakingly detailed by McEwan – really captured my imagination.    
A slow burner, the author effortlessly creates the era and setting for the novel. Certainly with regards to the position that Serena finds herself; everything feels very authentic. Her flatmates and work friends are always secondary to the action, yet the author seems to create fully rounded out characters despite their brief appearances. Of particular interest to me were the friendly exchanges between Serena and the girls. It sounds ridiculous to be impressed that a [insert gender here] author could write the [insert opposite gender here] character so well. But it’s true!! These conversations seemed to be bright spots for me throughout the book.    
The protagonist Serena is all I find annoying and frustrating in fiction. Weak, easily lead and rebellious only over the superficial of issues, Serena finds that her early academic promise does not sustain her university years. 
She is propelled through life by…her looks. 
Lucky cow. 
I have to admit; I found her ambitions to be refreshingly predictable and fitting to her upbringing. This is not a character who sets out to change the world, or make a political statement. Serena reads as an every young-woman archetype, not a ‘girl’s girl’ perhaps, but nevertheless feasible regardless of the time period. 

An affair with a married man thrusts her into the not-even-a-little-bit glamorous MI5. Here her middling talents do *not* set her above her peers. Her mentors unsavory connections – brought to life after he left her –  have soured the brass and Serena is uninspired at work, though she does seem to make a few solid friends. 
Yet she is not utterly revolting. Though I could see that I was being manipulated; I couldn’t help but warm to her passion for reading. I was slightly concerned at her seeming inability to seek out different interpretations within the literature, but a reader is a reader is a friend, you know?
I’m usually very lucky in fiction, finding aspects of most protagonists that I can bring into my heart. It’s rare that I care so much about what happens to a person when I don’t actually like them at all. Never have I experienced this as much as while reading this.

When she is finally offered the chance to work with an asset – the rising young author Tom Haley – it was so frustrating to know in advance that it was all going to end in tears. 

A trick that McEwan uses especially well across his novels is to present us with a stated fact, then later offer context that changes the meaning of the interaction utterly. In Atonement, this hook was the point of the novel, rather than a writing technique. There are hints of this again in both Saturday and Solar. 
Here however, there are two characters who change completely from one end of the novel to the other. The fist I delighted in; recognizing the technique as soon as it appears and kicking myself from falling for it once again. The second occasions occurs much more organically and is all the creepier for it.  

Yet for all that – Sweet Tooth is not without its faults.
It could be argued that this is a large book based on a somewhat slight premise, once all the bells and whistles are taken away. 
The characters are insular and rarely seem to interact with the outside world. Serena and Tom lost contact with everyone and everything – or so you could easily believe – as soon as they find one another. 
Secondary characters are developed then abandoned early in the book, not to reappear until many chapters later – sometimes a touch conveniently. It wouldn’t be so obvious except the characters are often so beautifully drawn in the first place.
And yet, perhaps such nit picking misses the point of this subtle, subversive story.
Serena of the pretensions sounding surname was *never* for a fraction of a second a spy in my eyes…though indeed the whole boy of staff at the back-stabbing and directionless MI5 seemed unsuited for espionage.
Everything – from her recruitment (bonked an ex-employee) to her eventual disgrace (bonked a special project – relax that’s not a spoiler. In fact, it’s almost embarrassingly signposted. She loves his fiction. Of course she’ll love the author. Obvious really.) was ridiculously trite. Once again, McEwan demonstrates his mastery within the sub-genera. In his hands, these ridiculous realities make a sort of fatalistic sense within the narrow vision and scope of the organisation described. 
The only aspect that I truly didn’t respond to postively was the casual sexuality constantly expressed by Serena. My objection is not that her father was a bishop or that it was unseemly or anything moral. I just can’t understand why anyone would sleep with a woman so lacking in substance. 

The book is dotted with sex scences – no that’s not quite right. This book seems to chart the evolution of the sexual relationship between Serena and Tom Haley, from the particularly un-erotic to love making to the passions felt once the hint of betrayal is in the air. Its rather lovely, but a touch cold. Serena isn’t the warmest of people and sometimes it was difficult to evaluate what she was really feeling. Certainly, her realisation towards the end of the novel that her deception may be revealed, came far too late for me. I mean, she wasn’t daft. How could she not see past the present moment so totally?   

By no means my favourtie of his novels, nevertheless; I’d definitely recommend Sweet Tooth to an established reader and/or a fan of the crime/thriller/romance genera.
The size may appear a touch alienating, but this is worth the effort. It’s remarkably easy to read – preferably in longer stretches as there are some very subtle interactions that deserve full attention. Curious till the end, I did sometimes wish that there had been a bit more humour. Still, a very enjoyable week was spent immersed! 

*Think of your own favourite treat here!

One thought on “Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan

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