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Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (2012)

  1. 00
    Too Bad to Die: A Novel by Francine Mathews (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: A tense and enthralling historical thriller in which British Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming attempts to foil a Nazi plot to assassinate FDR, Churchill, and Stalin.
  2. 11
    The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman (RidgewayGirl)
    RidgewayGirl: The same general topic from a different angle.
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Showing 1-5 of 126 (next | show all)
Ian McEwan is simply a masterful storyteller. I'll admit: this was a bit dull at the beginning, & I wasn't sure if I'd finish it. But then, like magic, I found myself wondering about the story during the day. And I remembered: This is a story by Ian McEwan. Of COURSE I'm going to like the ending.

It didn't make me gasp aloud like Atonement did. But it did put a smile on my face. A smile unsullied by the lesser saccharine endings rejected by McEwan. A smile with a trace of amicable envy for the life these characters led, for the bravery with which they owned their feelings. And I left this book wanting to meet these characters. What greater achievement can a story attain?

Thanks for your time, Mr. McEwan. ( )
  LauraCerone | May 26, 2016 |
This is a Reader's book. It is about writing, about words, and about the power of words. It is about the pen being wielded in the same battlefields as the sword, and sometimes with the same amount of ignorance.

Serena is a young woman, and a babe in the woods when it comes to being an "operative" in MI5 back in the early 70s. She stumbles into her new career and is thrilled with the glamour she thinks must surely be just around the corner when one works for that secret department. She eagerly hopes for an assignment that will reach beyond the usual fate for MI5's women of the drudgery of secretarial work. So she embraces the chance to recruit, without his knowing, a young writer into a program secretly funded by MI5 to encourage literary culture favourable to their government's politics. It was a way to use unsuspecting writers to create the state's propaganda. In this world of intelligence gathering, there seems to be very little intelligence and a great deal of petty office politicking and paper polishing.
Serena is annoyingly simple and self-absorbed, and remarkably passive, to the point where all sympathy is eroded and one impatiently awaits and hopes for a spectacular downfall. She is just about the least convincing character of the book.

Literature and the publishing world have prominent roles, and there is frequent name-dropping of real authors, including McEwan's friend Martin Amis who has non-speaking parts in the book. McEwan is having a bit of fun with other background scenes too. One of the women in the MI5 office is moving up fast through the ranks, and Serena notes that eventually the woman would become director of MI5. Her name is Millie Trimingham -- note the similar rhythm and sounds to the real life Stella Rimington, who herself was moving up the ranks in that time and went to become director. And then on p 97, one of the characters says, "...sooner or later one of our own is going to be chairing this new Booker Prize committee." I imagine a mild grin on McEwan's face as he types that.
There was also a bit in one of the writer's stories within the book that was remarkably similar to the premise of the movie "Lars and the Real Girl". I would like to find some interviews with McEwan to see if he talks about some of these things.

It was interesting to learn that the setting of this novel is not so fictional. There have always been various arms-length or secret funding of arts organisations and individuals that will promote views sympathetic to those of the ruling classes. McEwan's publisher Random House has an interesting essay about this http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/feature/spook-stories-all-writers-are-spies , and they describe the book as a "semi-autobiographical mash-up".

The opening chapters and the final chapter are the best of the book. ( )
  TheBookJunky | Apr 22, 2016 |
1. I'm not British enough to get this book. 2. As a woman, I had a really hard time buying the female voice and actions. 3. Just no. No no no. Weird book. 4. Amanda Green, you might like it because you are super smart and you never miss any tap steps. The rest of us, our brains wonder about too much. ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 2016 |
Not one of McEwan's best novels. It starts well with a well developed narrative voice but then slows down and doesn't seem to go anywhere. In the end, it relies for its effect from a 'twist' at the end much the same as 'Enduring Love' but it comes too late to redeem the book.
For a similar but, it my modest opinion, more powerful and relevant story on a similar theme and with a similar first person narrator, I can recommend my own novel 'The Lying Game' (see my dashboard site). ( )
  stephengoldenberg | Apr 6, 2016 |
The blurb tells us that this is a book set in the cold war of the 1970s in Britain. Serena Frome, a somewhat reluctant graduate of mathematics at Cambridge, joins MI5 and (amongst other tasks) is set the task of recruiting a writer to a nebulous programme of cultural attrition. He thinks she works for a cultural foundation; she is not entirely sure what it is that MI5 wants of him or her. The relationship between Serena and the writer, Tom Haley, moves from the professional to the personal. On this, it would seem, the plot must turn.

To an extent it does, but it isn't as central as you might think. This certainly isn't a typical cold-war spy thriller, and fans of that genre are likely to be disappointed. It uses some of the same devices and moods - the gloomy moral ambiguity that pervades much of John Le Carre's work, and the occasional questions about the real loyalties of some of those around the protagonist. There's far less of this than there might be in a typical thriller, though, and tension really only appears in the final chapters of the book. Before that, we learn much of Serena's life before the service and dullness of her existence in the first few years in the service. The ill-chosen lovers provide a contrast with what seems a happy and uncomplicated relationship with Tom - uncomplicated except for the secret she must keep from him. He routine work helps us understand the role of domestic intelligence in Britain at the time, and provide a reason for her to want this somewhat minor assignment.

In the middle passages of the book, the author allows himself an excursion into the examination of the process of writing. Serena reads all of Tom's work both before she meets him and afterwards, and we're given more detail than you might expect of each of his short stories. There are direct quotes, along with speculation as to Tom's intent, the relationship between different plots and characters, and to Tom's own life. In reading this, we cannot help but ask the same questions of the book we're reading.

There's rising tension towards the end, and a twist of which many other reviewers have written. It would be unfair to give detail about either. I'm not giving anything away by saying that I didn't find the twist revelatory in any sense as many others seemed to, and it certainly didn't make me want to re-read what I had just read. The book is very easy reading, it's enjoyable and well-crafted. But I would not want to revisit it. It's not my favourite of McEwan's by a long shot, but it's still a very good novel.

It does an excellent job of evoking a mood of the time, of Britain in the 1970s and the Establshment's attitude to the social change taking place. I'm a few years younger than Serena's meant to be, and I didn't have the privilege upbringing she had, but otherwise this is a Britain I grew up in and I'm very familiar with it. Other reviewers seem to find some of this background irritating. There are occasional references to current events that are a convenient shorthand if the time and place are familiar to you. If they aren't, I suggest you ignore them rather than scurrying to encyclopaedias as others have done. The nature of these external events just aren't necessary to following the book. I notice that those reviewers didn't object to the many literary references that the book is also full of, and yet these could be seen as equally off-putting. I recognised some but by no means all of them. I didn't feel obliged to look up the ones I was unfamiliar with and I don't think that affected my enjoyment either.

When you read this book just go with the flow and go quickly. It's better that way. ( )
  kevinashley | Mar 28, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 126 (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.
 

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Ian McEwanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Verhoef, RienTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person.
Timothy Garton Ash, The File
Dedication
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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