Sweet Tooth: book review

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan Publisher: Doubleday (November 2012). Literary fiction. Hardcover. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-0-385-53682-0.

Despite the exquisite prose and Ian McEwan’s remarkable writing talent, it took me a long time to finish this novel. At times the story dragged. Sweet Tooth felt outdated and strange. I’ve admired many works by McEwan includingSolar, The Cement Garden and Saturday. Perhaps it’s the subject matter. 1970s. MI5. Cold War. Anti-communism. Cultural wars. Or that his heroine ends up being not much of one at all. She’s an object. A sex object. An object for the reader and for the writer. Can we like her or root for her success? Particularly when she’s set up with nowhere to go?

“The Cold War was upon us. The world had arranged itself into hostile camps. I wasn’t alone in thinking the way I did. However grotesque its abuses, let the Soviet Union be similarly armed. Let small minds accuse him of unpatriotic betrayal, the rational man for global peace and the continuance of civilization.”

MI5 recruits beautiful Cambridge mathematics student Serena Frome into a low-level clerk position with little chance for advancement. She’s not much for math but devours novels by Muriel Spark, A.S. Byatt and Doris Lessing. Due to her literary prowess, she’s tapped for a project called “Sweet Tooth”– England wants to fund writers whose politics align with the government. She recruits a writer named Tom Healy and quickly becomes intimately involved with him. She quietly endures her filing duties for amorous weekends in Brighton.

McEwan confusingly includes Healy’s short stories, mostly suffocating morality tales, into the novel. There’s much said about Serena’s looks and relationships with older men. Her younger sister’s jealous. Her mom’s impressed by her independence. McEwan takes the facile and predictable scheme for Serena and Tom to personally connect. The woman as siren. The woman as seductress. Intelligence using the woman. The novelist using the woman. The woman out-of-place in the world of defense, international intrigue and global warfare. Sweet Tooth left me feeling a bit empty and disappointed.

FTC Disclosure: I received this for review from the publisher.

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