Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwen – Book Review

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwenSerena Frome starts off as many young women do, choosing a collegiate career to satisfy her parent’s desires and ambitions. Pressured into attending Cambridge University’s Newnham College for a degree in Mathematics,  Serena doesn’t have the depth of knowledge Cambridge requires. She spends  her free time reading classic and contemporary literature, and after landing a book column in a local magazine, fancies herself something of a critic – though by her own admission she is less than a careful reader.

While finishing her degree she starts a relationship with a middle-aged professor who guides her reading, and shapes her political opinions- thereby grooming her for recruitment at MI5, the English equivalent of the CIA. Serena’s literary studies make her the ideal agent on a project code-named Sweet Tooth, where she recruits young writers fitting predetermined parameters for covertly funded MI5 grants. Her first grant recipient is Tom Haley, a  talented writer struggling to publish, and supporting himself with teaching assignments. As the two become intimately involved and fall in love, Serena has a hard time deciding how much of her career should be shared with her lover.

McEwen skillfully combines elements in this compelling novel exploring the role of government agencies using culture and the arts to gauge and influence political ideologies of its constituents. But even more than it is a spy novel, it’s also a commentary on readers and reading, wrapped up in a coming-of-story. I loved the way McEwen pulls it all together. The fact that it’s set in the 1970’s doesn’t make it any less relevant to growing up, trying to decide on a life, the work place and advancing in a culture that minimizes women’s roles, and making choices that you’d like to take back. I’m pretty sure the spy agencies have continued to do their thing as well.

McEwen writes beautifully and he takes a lot of time building up Serena and giving a good idea of what goes on in her head, and includes long and detailed synopses of what she reads and how she reacts to the material. You understand how her thinking is shaped and why she acts as she does, how her beauty and intelligence affects the way she is viewed and treated, and how ultimately it influences her views of her own value and capabilities. There are clever turns in this novel (read carefully!) and  a lot of discussion on how stories are created and told, and the different kinds of writers and readers. I have heard grumblings that Sweet Tooth is highly autobiographical, and not his best work. This is my first McEwen novel, so I really can’t comment, but if this isn’t his best, then bring on the rest! Highly recommended.

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  1. Beth F

    I don’t know. I’ve read two of his books and didn’t like either. I’m pretty much the only person I know who doesn’t like McEwan.

    • I was not optimistic when I started reading this at all. I didn’t get that far in Saturday or Atonement, and I didn’t try any of the others. I expected not to finish it. I think the literary angle helped a lot!

  2. I’m a fan of Atonement, so this one is on my holiday wish list. Now I hope I get it even more!

  3. This sounds promising. I will have to give it a try. I have only read one Ian McEwen book before and that was Atonement. I liked it okay but didn’t love it, but I think that was in part because I was turned off by certain aspects of the subject matter. This combination spy / romance novel with a commentary on readers and reading sounds interesting though. I have a feeling I’ll like it more than Atonement.

    • I think I automatically love books more when they talk about other books! I have no real idea of what Atonement is about. I usually don’t get very far in his books, but I have kept this one to try again.

  4. I didn’t fall in love with Saturday, but I really adored On Chesil Beach, so who knows how this one would sit with me. By your synopsis though, it appeals to me. At some point I would like to give it a shot.

    • Is On Chesil Beach the short one about the married couple? Whichever one that is, is the one that I will likely read before attempting Atonement or any of the others.

  5. I really loved this one too! Ian McEwan is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. I’ve read and loved ATONEMENT, ON CHESIL BEACH, and AMSTERDAM. I’ve also read his first book, a collection of short stories called FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES. I’m hoping to get to more of his back list in 2013.

    • This is one of the few books that at some point, I really want to read again. So much happened! I want to see how it unfolds with an overview of the entire thing.

  6. I read one of McEwan’s books and liked it until the end. I find it interesting that he’s written an somewhat autobiographical book at this point in his career.

  7. I’ve heard a lot of buzz about this one and it certainly sounds good based on your description!

  8. That cover looks really 80s!

    It’s always interesting to read a book and love it and then have everyone else tell you that it’s not as good as the author’s work. I haven’t read McEwen, but I do love the film Atonement!

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