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.
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.
She is propelled through life by…her looks.
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.
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.
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.
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!