Ian McEwan’s latest book offers readers an enjoyable portrait of a disgraced British female spy in the 1970s. Sweet Tooth is certainly a more cheerful book than Atonement or On Chesil Beach, offering a happier ending and some autobiographical nuggets. This is definitely not an action-packed spy thriller, as Sweet Tooth is leisurely paced, intricately plotted, and is a novel of ideas, historical and literary references, a rather inept spy, and one surprising metafictional trick.
I was immediately attracted to the witty and satiric world view of the main character Serena Frome. The story is told in the first person, as Serena narrates her own story, revealing her childhood as the daughter of an Anglican bishop and a mother who wanted her to go to Cambridge and study math and “become extraordinary.” She abandoned her ambition to study English to please her parents. Unfortunately at Cambridge, Serena was only mediocre at math and found consolation avidly reading (her tastes are not snobbish) and writing “jaunty pieces” for a weekly magazine. With self-deprecating humor, she refers to the loss of her virginity several times over, an anticommunism writing blitz, and her complicated relationship with an older man named Tony Canning (who had ties to MI5). At this point in her young life, Serena is like molding clay that Tony bends to his will, cultivating the basic shape of a potential female spy. Her affair with Tony was an adventure to prove her own maturity. Tony’s cruel departure from her life left her vulnerable to the male-dominated MI5 organization where she applied for a job (lying and distorting the truth to match her invented self).
From a female perspective, the novel was intriguing as an example of how repressed women were only a few decades ago. Serena’s job prospects in the British Security Service appear to be limited to a low-paid secretarial position, while men became officers. Her first secret mission turned out to be an insulting adventure where she posed as a cleaning lady who actually had to clean a safe house! There can be no delusions of grandeur when faced with a dirty toilet! She is asked to work on a cold war propaganda scheme, codenamed Sweet Tooth. In this scheme, government cash is secretly used to fund artists likely to paint the west in a positive light. Serena falls in love with the writer to whom she is assigned (Tom Haley) causing her to live a life of lies, and leading her handlers to doubt her professionalism.
What really made me appreciate this book was its surprise ending – deliciously twisted. When the revelations were absorbed, I had to sit back and appreciate McEwan’s masterful plotting. You will love the metafictional con.
An interesting interview with Ian McEwan appeared in the Guardian in 2012. Apparently there are some autobiographical elements in this spy novel, as Ian McEwan “came of age” in the 1970s, living the life of a full-time writer and feeling reckless, excited and restless. There are numerous parallels that can be drawn from McEwan to the writer Tom Haley, and McEwan fictionalizes his former friend, publisher, and even his own earlier short stories.
The Bookbrowse website, lists two readalikes for Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth:
At Risk by Stella Rimington – Drawing from her experience as the first woman director general of MI5, Stella Rimington gives us a story that is smart, tautly drawn, and suspenseful from first to last. (Summary provided by Bookbrowse).
Invisible by Paul Auster – Poet and student Adam Walker meets the enigmatic Frenchman Rudolf Born and his silent, seductive girlfriend, Margot, sending Adam into a perverse triangle that leads to a shocking act of violence that will alter his life. (Summary provided by Novelist database).