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Sweet Tooth: A Novel by Ian McEwan
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Sweet Tooth: A Novel (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Ian McEwan

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2,0661403,212 (3.54)135
Member:dmcco01
Title:Sweet Tooth: A Novel
Authors:Ian McEwan
Info:Nan A. Talese (2012), Hardcover, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
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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.
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I feel like IÛªve 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 ‰ÛÏplume,‰Û 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 ‰ÛÏduty as a woman.‰Û Although Serena would rather study English, she complies with her mother‰Ûªs 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‰Ûªt care for the ‰ÛÏtricks‰Û of postmodernist literature, though. All she wants, Serena explains, are ‰ÛÏcharacters 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 ‰Û÷Marry me‰Ûª by the end.‰Û 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‰Ûªs. 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 ‰ÛÏjunior assistant officer,‰Û 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 ‰ÛÏSweet Tooth.‰Û 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‰Ûªs job is to visit Tom Haley (McEwan‰Ûªs doppelgÌ_nger) and offer him a stipend from a front organization. (That‰Ûªs it. That‰Ûªs her entire mission. [a:George Smiley|1411964|John le CarrÌ©|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1234571122p2/1411964.jpg] this girl ain‰Ûªt.) Serena is entranced by Tom‰Ûªs 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, ‰ÛÏOh man, it‰Ûªs gonna be so bad when Tom finds out!‰Û I didn‰Ûªt 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‰Ûªt try to influence what he writes. She doesn‰Ûªt 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‰Ûªs voice ‰ÛÒ she is wonderfully dry ‰ÛÒ 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‰ã¢ that made me want to chuck the book out the goddamn window. ( )
  doryfish | Aug 15, 2016 |
Not highly rated by readers, but I find it an engrossing read albeit the incredulity of certain parts such as the deployment of the protagonist on a mission when she isn't trained. Nevertheless, it is a smart book , a story within a story with a twist at the end. ( )
  siok | Aug 13, 2016 |
It is usually a safe bet to pick up an Ian McEwan novel. He is one of the best contemporary writers and some of the best books I have ever read is written by him. Sweet Tooth is not his most interesting, but still worth the read. I am not going to give away the full plot, will only say that it is the story of a young MI5 employee who does not manage to separate the personal from the professional in an assignment she has been given. It feels constrained that McEwan picks a young girl as the voice of the novel. I am not sure if it is totally believable, the other male characters are more real and multidimensional. The novel really picks up towards the end with some clever twists. The setting is the sixties and the seventies during the Cold War, and the background research seems to be top notch and adds to the reading pleasure. ( )
  petterw | Aug 7, 2016 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 129 (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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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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