Saturday, May 4, 2013

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

Sweet ToothMy name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn't return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.

Sweet Tooth was an interesting, though somewhat disappointing read. I heard about it from the New York Times, and thought it sounded really intriguing. The writing was interesting, but fell a little flat. "Cambridge student Serena Frome’s beauty and intelligence make her the ideal recruit for MI5. The year is 1972. The Cold War is far from over. England’s legendary intelligence agency is determined to manipulate the cultural conversation by funding writers whose politics align with those of the government. The operation is code named “Sweet Tooth.” Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is the perfect candidate to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer named Tom Haley. At first, she loves his stories. Then she begins to love the man. How long can she conceal her undercover life? To answer that question, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage: trust no one."

As I said, Sweet Tooth was interesting, but not really compelling. The writing felt like it was trying to be too clever, and like McEwan knew of his own cleverness. In doing so, he destroyed it. But the book did get better as it went on. I didn't like the beginning sections, but once Serena got her assignment, things started to get a bit more interesting. It still wasn't amazing, but it was much better. I really liked hearing Serena's thought process. She's got a complicated life which she has to work through. 

Part of what was a bit off-putting was that Sweet Tooth was really different from what I was expecting. I guess I hadn't really read the plot summary closely enough. It's not really a spy novel at all, not very suspenseful. I didn't really understand why soliciting Tom Haley was so important. Did something like this really happen in Britain in the 1970's? How is it going to help in the Cold War? All of that was a bit sketchy, and the book wasn't a thriller, that's for sure. But it was still pretty good and very lyrical. As I said, it got better the more the plot developed. 

One thing I did really like about Sweet Tooth was Serena as a character. Like me, she races through books, and I could really identify with her in that respect. Serena reads a page in 3 or 4 seconds. I'm not quite that fast, but almost. In other respects, however, Serena felt very different from me. She was kind of cruel sometimes, but I still enjoyed her as a character. Tom Haley was interesting, but not likable. He was a jerk sometimes.  Here's a quote that I liked: "Love doesn't grow at a steady rate, but advances in surges, bolts, wild leaps, and this was one of them." (pg. 191). The wording could have been better, but it did stand out to me.       

Sweet Tooth was an intriguing novel. I didn't love it, though I ended up enjoying it. Still, it's not really worth buying (though I did). Checking it out of the library is advised. 

Read Sweet Tooth:
  • if you like historical fiction 
  • if you like books set during the Cold War
  • if you like spy novels (though this isn't really one)
  • if you like books of doomed love affairs
301 pages, 3.5 stars.

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