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Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Ian McEwan

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1,6431144,387 (3.54)109
Title:Sweet Tooth
Authors:Ian McEwan
Info:Thorndike Press (2012), Edition: Lrg, Hardcover, 493 pages
Collections:Your library, Read but unowned
Tags:historical fiction, Cold War

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Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (2012)

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    The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman (RidgewayGirl)
    RidgewayGirl: The same general topic from a different angle.

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Showing 1-5 of 103 (next | show all)
This is the only Ian McEwan novel I have read and I have very mixed feelings about it. On the plus side, something about it kept me reading on and on, and it was very interesting to read about the energy crisis etc of the early 70s, which I lived through but cannot remember, but on the other hand...

Serena, the narrator, who works for MI5, was extremely passive and largely devoid of motivation of any kind and it was hard to see what she brought to the intelligence services. In some ways her portrayal seemed unconvincing (apart from the very moving moment where she cries on her father's chest), but this is all explained away by the ending, which has shades of the "and then I woke up and it had all been a dream" conceit about it. The ending annoyed me and made me feel manipulated. I also found the conclusion we were invited to draw about the ultimate resolution of Serena's relationship with Haley unlikely. There were many pointed references to things like shopping trolleys or decimal currency being new which read like heavy handed and clumsy attempts to anchor the novel in the early 70s. ( )
  pgchuis | Aug 24, 2014 |
McEwan has been a favorite writer of mine for many years. In the last few books he has experimented more and more with style. Like Solar, Sweet Tooth enters new and different territory for him. I found myself drifting away from the novel at times, but once I sat down to read the last half of the book, it jelled more for me. The ending is very nicely done and lifted my opinion of the book immensely.

It's a story that's takes place in the world of spies and literature, secret governmental programs and first novels, humor and deceit, oh, and love. Julie Myerson of The Observer, calls it "a great big beautiful Russian doll of a novel", and she's got it pegged. The love stories of the female main character were not my cup of tea, but it got the plot to where it needed to be for the book's ending to work so well. The book's construction is most clever and works well with the subject matter. While not one of my favorite McEwan novels, this one does hold its own for clever.
  jphamilton | Jul 19, 2014 |
What was supposed to be a spy story featuring a young woman as the secret agent turned out to be something way less interesting. McEwan does a decent job of writing from the young woman's perspective but it soon turns into every man's wet dream - an obvious obsession with sex. What was interesting was MI5s attempt to influence political sentiment by "monitoring without influencing" young writers. Unfortunately, most of the men in the story are quite weak, especially Max, who is actually quite a putz. The book is saved by the big twist at the end - we're really reading Tom's story about Serena's life and they even have a happing ending together. ( )
  sushitori | Jul 6, 2014 |
Enjoyable throughout. The perfect, spine-tingling ending makes it brilliant in retrospect. What is not to like about a novel about a beautiful woman who is an obsessive self-described "middle-brow" reader of fiction, who is a math major in college and becomes a spy in MI5? Set in the early 1970s as Britain appears to be coming apart from strikes, the IRA, and a collapsing economy, Sweet Tooth provides glimpses of literary London and a society in flux as both the WW II generation is still strong and a newer generation, with new mores, are emerging.

Sweet Tooth begins: "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 ruining my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing." The rest of the book tells this story, with much of it appearing to a be a straightforward story about coming into adulthood and falling in love, but there are odd glimpses here and there that don't completely add up, all of which make sense by the end.

Serena's relationship is with a young writer and as she reads his stories, they are described in great detail along with her reaction to them. These story interludes themselves are interesting and they serve to better flesh out the two characters, both the writer who wrote them and the reaction of the reader reading them. Ultimately, many of these stories come together in helping you to understand the full novel itself. ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
I suppose it was to be expected in a book where the main character loudly protests her dislike of literary tricks, that the book is based on one very large literary trick and one I was a bit annoyed I didn't see coming, as it was surely flagged about half way through. And to be honest it wasn't a trick I much admired.

Reportedly Ian McEwan wanted to write a book about the 70s, an important part of his development and a time of social stagnation and political turmoil. He does this through the story of the 22 year old Serena Frome, low level MI5 operative - mainly a clerical worker - and her relationship with M15 and 3 important men in her life; academic Tony Canning who becomes her lover and recruits her to "the Secret Vote", agent Max Greatorex with whom she maintains a tangled and nervous personal and professional relationship, and Tom Haley the budding writer MI5 pay her to entrap, who also becomes her lover

The description of the pure misery of the English 70s is done well - as a child of the time I remember well the heating cuts, the 3 day week, the general feeling of "what did we bother winning a war for ", the stagnant politics, the cold, damp miserable flats, the IRA terrors and Britain's general slip as a world power as the hopeless Heath, tired and ill Wilson, and the miners disputed control of the country.

The spy elements are good too and kept me engrossed; most secret work must have been dull, routine and boring. This brought to life well

Its the description of the relationship with Haley that doesn't quite work. Haley is quite clearly based on McEwan himself; he is at the University of Sussex, his short stories sound like McEwan's early work, sundry of McEwan's literary mates appear in character - Ian Hamilton, Martin Amis, Tom Maschler. He even looks like McEwan, although whether McEwan shared Haley's appeal to women only he will know. Nothing wrong with this of course but it sets a strange atmosphere - you keep wondering, did any of this really happen?

And as for Serena herself, she comes across as shallow and vacuous and her motivations are poorly explained. Why on earth is she attracted to the unloveable Greatorex? Surely she can't shrug off her MI5 job in such a carefree way when with Haley? What is the purpose of her relationship with Shirley Shilling (and what is the point of Shilling anyway) ? Why on earth did Canning want to recruit a creature that seeming lives for novels, gin and orange, pub rock and basically goes to bed with anyone who is manly enough to approach her, to M15. Surely, she must be more complex than this ?

The answer of course is that she probably is. Her vacuity, shallowness, lack of motivation and all round air of empty vessel waiting to be filled, are all part of the literary trick, and without a spoiler its hard to say much more about it. And there is a point to be made about how women were treated in the 70s, both in the workplace and in literature. An excellent point. But that doesn't necessarily a good novel make

So I enjoyed the book, didn't really like being tricked, but was entertained. And McEwan is still eminently more readable than 90% of other authors. I am looking forward to when / if he devotes his energy to something more substantialI love Ian McEwan's writing, but since Atonement, his books have felt more like Graham Greene style "entertainments" than serious work. ( )
  Opinionated | Jun 14, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 103 (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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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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