Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sweet Tooth

Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth is one of those deceiving novels in which, for page after page, nothing much seems to be happening until enough small pieces suddenly fit together to reveal another segment of the puzzle.   And, in the meantime, the main players are, bit by bit, turning into real flesh and blood people whose lives outside the pages of the books are easily imagined.  Serena Frome, who supplies the narrative voice of Sweet Tooth, is one such character.

It is 1972 and Serena, bright as she is, knows that even her superior Cambridge education will not guarantee her a spot on a career path she deserves.  The corporate and academic worlds of 1972 Britain are, after all, still very much dominated by men, so her employment options are limited.  But during this Cold War period, British Intelligence sees Cambridge as an important source of new recruits to the service and, when she is “tapped on the shoulder” by a professor/lover who identifies candidates for MI5, Serena accepts the resulting job offer.  

She has no idea what to expect next, or even an inkling of how drastically this one decision will impact the rest of her life.  Now, after the passage of almost four decades, she begins her story in the book’s opening paragraph this way:

            “My 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.” 

In the last sentences of the first chapter, speaking of her lover, Serena offers another hint of what is to follow:

            “His case was more complex and sadder than anyone knew.  He would change my life and behave with selfless cruelty as he prepared to set out on a journey with no hope of return.  If I know so little about him even now, it’s because I accompanied him only a very small part of the way.”  

Photo Credit: Annalena McAfee
Serena Frome, as it turns out, is as finely crafted a fictional character as one could hope to find.  She is certainly not easy to like, but she is easy to understand; she can be frustratingly boring one moment, and be taking stupid chances with her future the next; and she is as likely to let her innate intelligence be neutralized by her equally innate naiveté as the other way around.  She is, in other words, human. 

Above all else, however, readers will probably remember Sweet Tooth because of its ending, one likely either to infuriate them or to leave them smiling in admiration – one or the other.  Sweet Tooth is so much more than the sum of its parts that, as I expected from already being a fan of McEwan’s previous novels, I find myself in the “smiling with admiration” camp.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. I just got this book as an early pre-Christmas Christmas gift, and I look forward to reading it.
    Thanks for your review od it, Sam.

  2. I've yet to read any of his work and sadly, had not heard of this one before. I have many more books to add to my reading bucket list!

  3. Hey, Cip, let me know what you think of Sweet Tooth. That ending is really splitting the vote on this one, I think.

  4. Don't give up on McEwan, Kathleen. He's not "easy" to read, but he is worth the effort. This one is no exception (see all my comments about its ending).