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Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
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Sweet Tooth (2012)

by Ian McEwan

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Showing 1-5 of 152 (next | show all)
It's England in 1972, and Serena Frome gains a job working as a low- level undercover agent for MI5, the British Intelligence Service. Serena's mission is to recruit a promising writer, Tom Haley, whom her superiors hope will write novels that will further the government's anti-communist agenda. Serena poses as a representative of an apolitical literary foundation willing to provide Haley with funds with no strings attached. Of course Serena and Tom fall in love, as well as into bed, and Serena's dilemma is how and whether to continue the deception, or to reveal it to Tony with the likely destruction of the relationship.

But Ian McEwan's novels commonly are more than what they seem, and this one is no exception. I strongly urge those who haven't read the book not to spoil the experience be reading what follows here. Of course Tony figures out the scheme, and plays along with it. As the reader discovers in the final pages, it is he who has written the entire "novel" -- depicting Serena as he saw her and based on a reconstruction of events from before they met. I only began to become suspicious 2/3rds of the way into the book.

Clearly the author was having fun with this work. Serena periodically reads Haley's published stories, which (as I only learned from another reviewer) are very similar to McEwan's own early fiction. Further McEwan gives Tom Haley aspects of his own persona and appearance -- while making him quite a brilliant and attractive fellow, and a success between the sheets.

"Sweet Tooth" is a clever and skillful work, and I suspect that to fully appreciate it, one should finish the last page and turn back to the beginning to read it again. Overall, I admire the work, but for me the entertainment value lay in the middle range. Readers who compare this work to LeCarre or other espionage novels have missed the point. They have failed -- as I nearly did -- to get beneath the surface of the story. This is not the first of McEwan's novels to engage in a postmodern form of "meta-fiction", as readers of "Atonement" will recognize. For those who want to appreciate the complexities and nuances of "Sweet Tooth" further, I recommend the Amazon review linked below. I also recommend the NY Times review:
https://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/05/books/sweet-tooth-by-ian-mcewan.html?_r=0

https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2Z9SVDK8VRLBU/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_t... ( )
1 vote danielx | Apr 8, 2019 |
This is a book with a flaw. It purports to be about propaganda and literature: both literature as a form of propaganda and propaganda in other forms. Our protagonist, Serena (!) is first educated about ruling class propaganda in The Times of London and elsewhere by her left-leaning tutor, who turns out to be a Russian agent. Characters spin their stories in their own way and have their favoured versions of the truth. Serena gradually learns to doubt the surface messages. She is brought into MI5, and becomes part of a low-level propaganda campaign, providing a disguised income to Tom, a promising novelist who writes about freedom and creativity. Part of Serena’s indoctrination is a review of the efforts of the Comintern and CIA propaganda branches to support their own literary favourites. In the end, the whole scheme comes apart, and as readers we have to re-evaluate the story of Serena.
Serena is more than a bit naïve, a shallow but voluminous reader who slowly learns to appreciate more literary writing. She is taken with Tom’s creative stories, sometimes quite moved by them, although the summaries she recounts seem rather bizarre, more like academic writing exercises than actually convincing stories. Serena falls for Tom and they have an affair, although she worries about how to tell him that she is a fraud who has been undermining his professional credibility. When Serena’s ex-lover brings Tom a different story that undermines her credibility, Tom turns the tables on her and makes up his own story. In the end, we see how creative story-telling is more successful than bureaucratically inspired propaganda, even in the hands of a literary writer.
All this is very post-modern, questioning the meaning of storytelling and point-of-view, which could be an interesting twist, although hardly a new idea.
The flaw, which I felt before reaching the various plot turns, is that it’s just not that interesting. The characters are sketched with little detail or depth, and their crises are not engaging. The plot seems to have so little at stake that it’s not interesting. The occasional background details of the social unrest of Britain in the early 1970s actually sparked more interest for me than the central story line. So it undermines the message that creative fiction is better than government propaganda when the creative fiction that I’m reading feels flat and boring.
On a side note, the story line seems to challenge the notion of artificial limitations on writers and that writers can’t appropriate someone else’s voice. McEwan writes in the voice of a woman as if to show that it can be done successfully. In fact, the voice of Serena seems convincing enough as a young woman in 1970s London, but the fact that the story she is describing isn’t very successful actually seems to support the notion that writing in the voice of another is inherently limiting and incomplete.
My reaction to the book is totally subjective, and perhaps others would react more deeply to the intensity of the love affair and the inherent conflict and loss that threaten it. But in the end, it seems to me to be another thought experiment that doesn’t really work rather than a successful novel. (For a thought experiment that does work even though much wilder than this one, I both enjoyed and bought into Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union.) ( )
1 vote rab1953 | Mar 7, 2019 |
I feel like I’ve been screwed over twice. First by the publisher, for advertising this as a spy story, and then by the author, for the way he wrote this entire fucking book. Seriously, want to know what Ian McEwan thinks of you, his reader? Especially if you happen to be a lady reader? Read Sweet Tooth right to the fucking end and find out.

Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume,” as she tells us) is the smart, beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop. Raised in a loving family, she has been spared from the greater excesses of the sixties. When it is time for Serena to go to college, her mother pressures her to study mathematics at Cambridge, saying it is her “duty as a woman.” Although Serena would rather study English, she complies with her mother’s wishes, only to find that she is not as brilliant at math as everyone thought.

Serena takes her mind off her shortcomings by going back to her first love: books. She is a delightfully unsnobbish reader, insisting to her friends that Valley of the Dolls is as good as anything by Jane Austen and reading Octopussy and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the same sitting. She doesn’t care for the “tricks” of postmodernist literature, though. All she wants, Serena explains, are “characters I could believe in . . . Generally, I preferred people falling in and out of love . . . It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end.” Poor, sweet Serena, all your preferences are going to be royally pissed on by the time your story is over.

The works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn transform Serena into a vehement anti-Communist, a rarity in the university world of the 1970’s. A series of articles she writes for a student magazine catches the eye of middle-aged Tony Canning, a history tutor and former MI5 operative. They have an affair and he begins grooming her for recruitment into MI5. Even after he brusquely ends things between them, Serena continues on the path set out for her and is hired as a “junior assistant officer,” i.e. glorified secretary. Geez, that pesky glass ceiling.

However, thanks to her reputation as a reader, Serena is offered a role in a program codenamed “Sweet Tooth.” MI5 has been secretly funding up-and-coming writers whose work have an anti-Communist slant, and now they want to add a novelist to the list. Serena’s job is to visit Tom Haley (McEwan’s doppelgänger) and offer him a stipend from a front organization. (That’s it. That’s her entire mission. [a:George Smiley|1411964|John le Carré|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1234571122p2/1411964.jpg] this girl ain’t.) Serena is entranced by Tom’s short stories and all too ready to fall in love with their author. As her relationship with Tom grows more and more serious, Serena agonizes over telling him the truth, knowing he would probably reject both the money and her.

While reading, I never went, “Oh man, it’s gonna be so bad when Tom finds out!” I didn’t feel any real tension. Serena visits Tom, they have sex, they get drunk, they have more sex, she feels guilty about not telling him, she goes home. Repeat ad nauseum. And maybe I am a horrible person, but I thought the sense of underhandedness was blown way out of proportion. Serena never lied about her feelings for Tom. She doesn’t try to influence what he writes. She doesn’t try to censor him. She just offered him money that he was under no obligation to accept.

I also had a problem with the way Serena is treated by male characters, and even the author himself. She has terrible taste in men. They are unavailable (gay, engaged, married) or not very nice (manipulative, vindictive, self-absorbed). Sometimes both. And while I liked Serena’s voice – she is wonderfully dry – everything that happens to her happens because (1) she is pretty and (2) she likes to read. (Why do male authors have this idea that a girl is remarkable if she is pretty and likes to read? Bonus points if she likes to have sex.) And the ending is just this true Ian McEwan plot twist™ that made me want to chuck the book out the goddamn window. ( )
1 vote doryfish | Mar 6, 2019 |
What I took to be the norm -- taut, smooth, supple -- was the transient special case of youth. To me, the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes.

Sweet Tooth is a deceit. There is a masque of espionage at play. There are feints, there are lies. The reader weaves as in concert, only to discover the ruse. This work also concerns a portrait of the early 70s, one of orange miniskirts and sanitation strikes. This is also a novel about deceit, especially literary deceit. This particular knot takes place during the war of ideas, the Cold War, guerilla chic and the weight of words. Did I mention deceit? I was prepared to hate this novel but then fell helpless in its sway. Sweet Tooth is a gripping journey, one well worth your time. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
Meh. ( )
  Katie_Roscher | Jan 18, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 152 (next | show all)
A satisfying spy novel with a literary twist provides both surprises and sly references to McEwan's early work
 
Ian McEwan has never been a spy (or, if he has, that fact remains classified), but of today's novelists he may be the most uniquely suited to the profession. He has a scientific, technical mind drawn to structural ploys and complicated scene engineering. . . . Mr. McEwan likes manipulating readers as much as plots. . . . Ultimately, like his bloodless previous novel, Solar (2010), there is little point to Sweet Tooth beyond Mr. McEwan's low-level authorial deceptions. . . . The book is soon overwhelmed by its own narrative ruse, which revealed in the final pages, is clever but not meaningful.
added by sgump | editWall Street Journal, Sam Sacks (Nov 13, 2012)
 
In playing these mirror games, Mr. McEwan seems to want to make the reader think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing. He also seems to want to make us reconsider the assumptions we make when we read a work of fiction. As usual his prose is effortlessly seductive. And he does a nimble job too of conjuring London in the 1970s — with its economic woes, worries about I.R.A. bombings and uneasy assimilation of the countercultural changes of the ’60s. These aspects of “Sweet Tooth” keep the reader trucking on through the novel, but alas they’re insufficient compensation for the story’s self-conscious contrivance and foreseeable conclusion.
 
The combination of all these nose-tapping hints suggests to the alert reader that there’s something clever-clever coming along at the end, which makes it feel even more like a gimmick. I won’t spoil things if you’re going to read the book, but just remember that one of the central characters is a novelist. OK?
 
But Sweet Tooth – which has been misleadingly hyped as a thriller – is a different kind of work altogether. It’s McEwan’s version of metafiction, his exploration of what it could mean to write a postmodern-realist novel for a wide (mainstream and literary) readership. It’s also rather biographical. . . . . but this novel could be seen as his way of reaching beyond the easy labels without abandoning the style his readers love. He’s intelligent, has popular and literary appeal, manages credibly and interestingly to include politics in his writing, and has a gift for making an enormous range of readers feel as though he is writing about them, about their own particular life of the mind. He observes the tiny tragedies of growing up and growing old with humour and insight.
 

» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ian McEwanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Balmelli, MauriziaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stevenson, JulietNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Verhoef, RienTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person.
Timothy Garton Ash, The File
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To Christopher Hitchens
1949-2011
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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.
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Recruited into MI5 against a backdrop of the Cold War in 1972, Cambridge student Serena Frome, a compulsive reader, is assigned to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer whose politics align with those of the government, a situation that is compromised when she falls in love with him.… (more)

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