Review: Sweet Tooth

Posted 5 December, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 6 Comments

Sweet Tooth
By: Ian McEwan
Format/Source: Paperback; my copy

Serena Frome, the beautiful mathematician daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge before taking a job with MI5 in London. The year is 1972: Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism; the Cold War has entered a moribund phase but the fight goes on and British Intelligence hesitates at little to influence hearts and minds. MI5 sends Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, on a secret mission that brings her to Tom Healy, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life? What is deception and who is deceiving whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage–trust no one.

Oh, man, this book has been on my to-read pile for the last…two? three? years. I kept putting it off for some reason–likely school-related, then just wasn’t in the mood to read it–but I was excited to check it out. I’ve loved Ian McEwan’s books–Atonement (review) is one of my favourite novels ever–though it is a bit of a hit and miss sometimes (didn’t really enjoy Saturday, for example). But I finally got around to reading this book now, yay!

Sweet Tooth has a sure sense of the period in British history and society that it’s set in, from the local politics happening within the United Kingdom to current events such as the Cold War that continued on. There’s a gradual change that’s happening in British society, one that is disgruntled and suspicious of the government and rife with class differences (which, if you think about it, continue to persist in contemporary British culture today). The book is a slow burn, chronicling Serena’s life, her time in Cambridge, and her burgeoning career in MI5, but it reinforces some of the issues in her life that contribute to Serena’s present situation in the story.

I admit, there was something about this book that sort of put me off. I wasn’t quite sure what it was–was it the case that Serena was on? Her role in events that unfolded? The time period?–until I finally figured it out: it was Serena herself. She’s the narrator of the story, but there’s something about the way she recounts her story that leaves me a little cold. Her family life and influence of her mother–who drops off the radar soon enough; I felt her father’s presence a bit more–leads her to read mathematics at Cambridge, which left her miserable and ridiculed. But she’s not a miserable person per se, I think some of her experiences sort of marred her personality a bit. Other characters have noted this too, but Serena does come off as a bit of a snob. I can’t think of a specific example, but there’s something about her narrative that’s cold and inaccessible somehow. Her relationships also seem to reflect this to some degree; she keeps ending up with people who are not wholly available to her, save Tom, but even then he’s technically the job.

At the same time, the book deals a lot about books and reading and a love of books. In this sense, a) the book sort of crosses genres in a way that you can’t quite peg the story down as a thriller or a mystery or a romance, and b) I can relate to Serena through her love of books. The book is also a sort of short stry compilation in a way, Tom Haley’s short stories weaving in and out of the narrative. It’s a little confusing reading them at times because of the story-within-a-story presentation and Serena’s actions and thoughts as she’s reading punctuates and breaks the narrative in a way. But it’s very interesting.

Sweet Tooth is more of a quiet story in the vein of John le Carre’s novels, than a furious, all-our espionage tale. As with any of McEwan’s novels, there’s always a twist at the end, but I found the twist in this novel to be a rather gentle one; it wasn’t a shocking kick in the gut like Atonement or this tense sort of reveal like in On Chesil Beach but it fit nicely with everything else in the story. Overall, the novel was an interesting one, though I wouldn’t recommend this book as a starter if you haven’t read any Ian McEwan’s novels. I think it would make a nice, atmospheric movie though 😉

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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6 Responses to “Review: Sweet Tooth”

  1. I was about to start this book last night, and then i opened it and saw that it was in the 1st person and put it aside. I have to be in the right mood for 1st person and I knew it wasn’t going to work for me. And like you, McEwan can be hit or miss with me, so I thought i should wait until i was in the mood.

    • lol, that was me maybe last year with this book; picked it up, read a page, then set it back down. But yeah, waiting until you’re in the mood sounds like a good idea 🙂

  2. I bought this book on a whim some time ago and I still haven’t read it. However, I also bought Atonement and I want it to be my first Ian McEwan!

    • Yes, definitely read Atonement first! Ian McEwan was on top of his writing game with that book IMO 🙂 I’d recommend reading some of his other works like Amsterdam and On Chesil Beach (though I personally need to revisit that novel at some point as I don’t think I caught all the nuances with that story the first time I read it) before this one Sweet Tooth, I think.

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