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Sweet Tooth (2012)

by Ian McEwan

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,7071783,660 (3.53)164
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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» See also 164 mentions

English (163)  Dutch (4)  Spanish (4)  German (2)  Hebrew (1)  Norwegian (1)  Catalan (1)  French (1)  Danish (1)  All languages (178)
Showing 1-5 of 163 (next | show all)
This book had promise, it wasn’t bad, but it was dull, and only got more dull the more I read. The “twist” at the end couldn’t save it, being at the end of an arduously long letter explaining the twist. I finally started reading the first sentence of most paragraphs and found I didn’t miss a beat. ( )
  KarenMonsen | Jun 5, 2020 |
In 1972, the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges published a short story called "The Other," in which his elderly self, seated on a bench in Cambridge (the alma mater of Serena Frome, the protagonist of Sweet Tooth), bumps into his younger self. The two versions of Borges engage in a dialogue from which each comes away disconcerted by the differences between them, a device that is used by Borges to reflect on the disparate selves that we inhabit in the course of our lives. McEwan replicates a similar but fleeting moment in the course of his narrative. Toward the end of the book, as Serena is making her way through the crowd at Victoria station, she has a sudden vision: "I happened to glance to my right, just as the crowd parted, and I saw something quite absurd. I had a momentary glimpse of my own face, then the gap closed and the vision was gone." Sweet Tooth follows the same logic as Borges, for McEwan, now sixty-four and the author of more than a dozen books, uses this novel to reflect back on his early career.

On the surface, the plot seems to belie this strategy. Set in the 1970s, its first-person narrator is a young woman who, after graduating from Cambridge with a degree in mathematics, is recruited by MI5. Although women are usually handed MI5's lowliest tasks, Serena is given a break: she is assigned to an operation called Sweet Tooth, which provides covert funds to authors who have an established anti-communist bias. As such, Serena recruits Tom Haley, a budding young writer with whom she soon begins an affair. In this layer of the story McEwan provides a searching and sometimes hilarious examination of artistic integrity in relation to the state, a subject that resounds in a number of directions: the rise of a neoconservative ideology that has seen cuts to arts funding over the last four decades, the grounding of Sweet Tooth in the real-life precedent of the CIA's funding of the magazine Encounter, and even Haley's choice of Spenser's Faerie Queene as the topic of his doctoral thesis, since Spenser's work is an allegorical epic poem that bears a similarly complicated relationship to the politics of the Elizabethan age. Indeed, one might argue that the Faerie Queene, rather than any spy thriller, is McEwan's biggest clue as to how to read this particular dimension of the novel (although I suspect that Spenser will somehow not see a dramatic spike in sales as a result).

Concealed within this story is a recurrent set of in-jokes about McEwan and his early career, expressed through the character of Tom Haley. As part of her background research, for instance, Serena reads Haley's published stories, which bear strong similarities to the style and themes of McEwan's early fiction. Like Borges, McEwan treats his younger self with a mixture of appreciation and amusement, establishing a deliberately ambiguous relationship with those earlier works. On the surface, he asks us to admire them, but underneath he seems to be smirking at their now-apparent youthful enthusiasm. McEwan also gives Haley many of his own biographical features, from his lanky frame to his home university of Sussex. Again, this quasi-portrait is undercut with an Austen-like irony that is easy to miss the first time through, most notably McEwan's repeated insistence on Haley's being a "swordsman" whose mastery in bed is commented on at every turn by Serena. It is difficult - and therefore deeply humorous - to work out whether McEwan is engaging in sexual boasting by proxy, or whether these moments arise from self-deprecating humor, or whether, like in Austen, the line between the two has become so blurry that it is no longer possible to judge the difference. Either way, careful readers of the novel, especially those who are reading it for a second time, should have wonderful time picking out these shades of ambiguity.

Sweet Tooth has wrongly been billed as a spy novel in the vein of, say, John le Carré, or even a thriller in the mold of McEwan's earlier novel The Innocent, but that is not what this book is about at all. Instead, it asks searching questions about the value of literature to both the educational and political vitality of a society. Serena is a voracious but poor reader: she reads purely for the surface entertainment of a book, for instance, while missing the subtle underlying meanings of the text. As such, she avoids poetry and experimental prose, refusing to grapple with difficult works in what McEwan intimates is a symptom of a larger failure to engage in true critical thinking. Books are in danger, he warns us, of becoming as useless as the defunct telephones in Haley's dystopian novella: "Without a telephone system, telephones are worthless junk." Without a critical reading audience, McEwan implies, works of literature, including Sweet Tooth, are "worthless junk," toys that are reduced to lowly entertainment when they could be used for so much more.

To conclude, if you have never read a book by Ian McEwan, then DO NOT start with this one. The reason is simple: Sweet Tooth is in many ways a literary retrospective, an oblique reflection by the author back on the origins of his career. As such, if you haven't read any early works by McEwan - especially In Between The Sheets - and don't know anything about his life, you will miss a great deal of the logic and rich humor embedded in this novel.
  vernaye | May 23, 2020 |
1972. Cambridge student Serena Frome‘s beauty and intelligence makes her the ideal recruit for MI5. Operation Sweet Tooth is determined to manipulate writers whose politics align with the government. Serena, a compulsive reader, is the perfect candidate to infiltrate a promising young writer named Tom Haley. She loves his stories and then falls in love with him. How long can she conceal her undercover life? Read this book and find out! ( )
  EadieB | May 18, 2020 |
Liked it more the second time around. ( )
  fromthecomfychair | May 1, 2020 |
This is my very first novel by the author Ian McEwan. The book has been marketed as a "spy thriller," and you'll be especially disappointed if you start reading with those expectations. The book is actually a rather tedious and overworked meditation on literature. It's a given it’s about deception but with layers upon layers; deception taken to a whole new level.

When I read, I’m looking for a gut punch. It’s always some profundity nestled in the mundane shit that makes up everyday existence. And that, in part, is why this book was such a disappointment. It was just mundane existence. There were no twists, no turns, nothing unexpected. It was like driving home from work.

I was also bored by the really heavy-handed insertion of Cold War history and politics. It detracted from the story, but, at the same time, the story couldn’t function without it. I can appreciate setting and the desire to plant a story in a specific historical period, but, above all else, a good novel should be timeless.

I found most of the characters at times quite glib. The narrative is sometimes sterile, lacking any warmth. The more I read, the more I struggled to get through it; the plot dragged and the characters were both unbelievable and unlikable. It seemed well-written, but it lacked the emotional depth and psychological insight that to me is the mark of a great novel.

The main character, Serena Frome, fresh out of Cambridge becomes a spy for the British government. Yet she has not a whit of common sense. Strange that she managed a degree from Cambridge...? She is passive, incredibly immature, and constantly looking for her next sexual liaison. Sound like a MI5 operative to you? Not to me. She also written in a way that makes you question if the writer knows how to write women at all. She falls in love with nearly every man she meets and can think of little but the next sexual encounter. At every turn, she's making love again, as if that's all that inspires her to live. She doesn't seem to have much self-worth, unless she has a boyfriend, and is loved by someone. She's self-centered, without scruples, and completely willing to jeopardize her mission when it suits her. I wonder how she hung onto that job for as long as she did...?

At the end of the day, this is not a "spy novel" at all; the spy part is so flimsy it almost can't bear the weight it's meant to carry. So you need to suspend disbelief to see what Serena's doing as undercover/spying/intelligence work at all. instead, it's a love story, but not a romantic one, for the simple reason that Serena isn't really very interesting. She intentionally screws up her job which she has no aptitude for by developing not one, but two on the job romantic entanglements. She's a pretty bad friend, an unsympathetic sister and a fairly absent daughter. But she's really pretty, we're given to understand. All these traits are in service of McEwan's master plan. But they don't make it much fun to spend 300-odd pages with her as our ostensible guide, as she's kind of a bore.

As for the eventual hero of the piece, the most fun McEwan has all book is making up short stories for our fictional writer to have written, to dig into. While is is fun in doses, the recaps and quotes of his writing drag after a bit.. This is a clever, annoying trick that somehow wants us to think about love, art, life, and how it might all relate to spying. There are tricks in this story, but they seemed tired and worn thin to me. It felt like McEwan was trying to be too clever, and the plot suffered because of it.

In the end we have a spy novel with no mystery, and a love story with no romance. It may well become rather forgettable, after another book or two is read by me. In short, by the time it all ends, with more of a small firecracker than a big bang, you are mostly relieved to be finished. I still cannot decide if this novel was thoroughly annoying, quite clever, or both. ( )
  stephanie_M | Apr 30, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 163 (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
Camus-Pichon, FranceTranslatorsecondary 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
To Christopher Hitchens
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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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