Author: Ian McEwan
Provided Synopsis: 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” that 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.
Review: I am struggling to understand if this book is incredibly annoying or incredibly clever.
Sweet Tooth was very difficult to get into. In some respects it felt as if I were reading a detailed history of the cultural climate in the United Kingdom during the Cold War. Serena is an avid reader, but she is not a critical one — and it shows since the book is written through her narrative, which quite frankly droned on. My eyes and mind seemed to glaze over her words; I was disengaged, and I am lucky that I got to the eightieth page so that the point of this book could finally fall into place. Sweet Tooth is a cultural operation begun by MI5 to collect and support writers who have anti-communist viewpoints. It is Serena’s job to go undercover as an agent of a fictional organization that wants to provide monetary support to authors while they write; the goal is that the writers never learn they are working on behalf of the government. The first author Serena is to recruit to the foundation is Tom Haley, and the reader already knows from the first sentence of the book that she will muck up her mission by falling in love with him.
For a novel that is touted to be a “spy novel” with “espionage,” there is not much of that evident in the text. The most undercover thing Serena does is recruit Tom and then never tell him the truth about who funds his pension as they fall in love. Therefore, I would consider Sweet Tooth to be much more of a love story; it is only when Serena and Tom begin to fall in love that I began to enjoy their interactions and the book itself. But that still brings us to the dilemma that I posed at the beginning of this review: is Sweet Tooth annoying or incredibly clever? At the risk of giving away spoilers I can not dive further into my thoughts concerning that question. All I can say is that the final twenty pages of the book were revealing and explosive. The issues I had with the tone of Serena’s vapid narrative were explained. Suddenly, everything made such perfect sense.
Although this will not go down as one of my favorite Ian McEwan books, I can give him credit for being creative. This is a book about writing and the success of it. The payoff of Sweet Tooth is the final twenty pages of it, but whether or not the reader has the drive or interest to reach that point is up for debate.