Sweet tooth

by Ian McEwan

Hardcover, 2012

Status

Available

Publication

London : Jonathan Cape, 2012.

Description

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.

Media reviews

A satisfying spy novel with a literary twist provides both surprises and sly references to McEwan's early work
4 more
Wall Street Journal
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.
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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Ian McEwan's new novel is the story of an MI5 agent in the seventies who is part of a group trying to find and secretly fund writers. Serena was good at math in school, which caused her mother to push for her to apply to study math at Cambridge, rather than literature somewhere less exalted, as Serena would have preferred. Along the way, she has a relationship with a professor, which leads her to applying for and getting a job in the secret service. To her disappointment, women at that time were only allowed to be glorified secretaries and, in one memorable instance, cleaning women. Although Serena is less bothered by this state of affairs than her closest colleague, she's nonetheless pleased when she is given a small promotion and sent to offer a stipend to a new writer.

The setting is fantastic. The Cold War was underway and the fabric of British society was fraying, with strikes and shortages lending an air of doom to everyday life. MI5 was competing with MI6, and both were eager to impress the CIA. Intellectual life favored the left, some of whom were allegedly funded by the Soviets, so the idea that funding writers who would be sympathetic to the right seemed perfectly reasonable.

Serena is a true believer in the dangers of communism and finds her work to be of value. Handed Haley's short stories in preparation to her visiting him, she's intrigued by his writing and attracted to him because of that when they do meet. There's a bit of distance built into the story, which is framed as having been written years after the events described, but the actions and feelings of the people involved benefit from the remove. I enjoyed this book, both for its descriptions of time and place and for the themes of the relationship between writer and reader and for the sheer unreliability of a writer's compliance to coercion.
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LibraryThing member gbill
The setting is the cold war in 1970’s England; a young woman named Serena Frome is recruited into the British Secret Service out of college and put on a program meant to foster authors who’ll write works of fiction with subtle conservative, anti-communist overtones, in order to help win the hearts and minds of the public. The authors are not aware of the true nature of the program and to them it appears simply as financial assistance. Serena falls for the author she’s paired with and from there begins to walk a thin line.

Despite this setting and elements in the plot that have Serena realizing she can’t trust the people around her, seemingly heading towards the drama and tension in a conventional “spy novel”, this is really not a spy novel, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be disappointed.

For my part I liked it better for that. I wasn’t a fan of the right-wing perspective on communism and welfare that appeared at times, but there were nice touches like the dilemma of pursuing the more practical degree in math as opposed to “wasting your life on English”, the classic Monty Hall Let’s Make a Deal probability question, and a reference to the poem “A Bookshop Idyll” by Kingsley Amis, about the differences in men and women’s tastes which I looked up and liked. On top of that I like McEwan’s writing. His ending is very clever and bumped up my review score by a half star.

Quotes:
On Americans:
“…the United States was the only country on the planet that didn’t understand that some things work better when they’re small.”

On the British:
“I’m a coward in important confrontations. I suspected we would both choose the English solution and pretend that the conversation had never happened.”

On Christ:
“In the harsh Iron Age world of the Old Testament, ethics ere pitiless, its jealous God was ruthless and His most cherished values were revenge, domination, enslavement, genocide and rape. … Against such a background, Edmund says, we see how radical the new religion was in putting love at its center. Uniquely in human history, a quite different principle of social organization was proposed. In fact, a new civilization takes root. However short it may fall of these ideals, a fresh direction was set. Jesus’ idea is irresistible and irreversible. Even unbelievers must live within it. For love doesn’t stand alone, nor can it, but trails like a blazing comet, bringing with it other shining gods – forgiveness, kindness, tolerance, fairness, companionability and friendship, all bound to the love which is at the heart of Jesus’s message.

On old age:
“I was a little put out first time to see what fifty-four years could do to a body. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, bending to remove a sock. His poor naked foot looked like a worn-out old shoe. I saw folds of flesh in improbable places, even under his arms. How strange, that in my surprise, quickly suppressed, it didn’t occur to me that I was looking at my own future. I was twenty-one. What I took to be the norm – taut, smooth, supple – was the transient special case of youth. To me, the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes. And now, what I would give to be fifty-four again! The body’s largest organ bears the brunt – the old no longer fit their skin. It hangs off them, like a room-for-growth school blazer. Or pajamas.”

On being sensitive:
“Sometimes not talking is the best way through a difficulty. The fad for personal ‘truth’ and confrontation was doing great damage in my view and blighting many friendships and marriages.”

On sex:
“He was truly attentive and skillful, and could keep going for as long as I wanted, and beyond, until I could bear no more. But his own orgasms were elusive, despite my efforts, and I began to suspect that there was something he wanted me to be saying or doing. He wouldn’t tell me what it was. Or rather, he insisted that there was nothing to tell. I didn’t believe him. I wanted him to have a secret and shameful desire that only I could satisfy. I wanted to make this lofty, courteous man all mine. Did he want to smack by backside, or have me smack his? Was he wanting to try on my underwear? This mystery obsessed me…”
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LibraryThing member browner56
After a rather sterile upbringing and a diffident college education, a young woman is recruited by the British secret service to help fight the Cold War of the 1970s. Little more than a glorified administrative assistant initially, she soon secures her first covert operations assignment involving the enlistment of a promising young novelist to produce pro-government literature under the code name of “Sweet Tooth”. She proves to be good at her job; perhaps too good, in fact, as her romantic involvement with the writer jeopardizes the entire project and leads to serious repercussions for both of them.

Such is the basic plot of Sweet Tooth, which combines the spy novel, the romance novel, the “books about books” novel, and historical fiction genres into a single volume. In terms of structure and literary invention, it is hard not to compare this book to McEwan’s previous masterpiece Atonement: Both are highly atmospheric period pieces narrated by a female protagonist that contain surprising plot twists at the end. Unfortunately, that comparison does not favor this more recent work, which I found to be the lesser of the two by a considerable margin.

So, what was lacking in Sweet Tooth? Soul, I think. Whereas Atonement told an emotionally compelling and highly satisfying story in a very creative way, this book has none of the charm or heart of that earlier effort. Indeed, while it is hard to fault the author’s writing style or technical mastery of the subject matter, the clever-for-clever’s-sake nature of the story was often tedious and failed to resonate with me. At times, it seemed as if McEwan was more concerned about paying homage to various literary icons (e.g., Angus Wilson, Martin Amis) and the people who had helped his own career (e.g., Ian Hamilton) than telling a compelling tale. Those numerous references, along with other contrived plot devices—such as the implausible reference to the famous “Monty Hall Problem” from probability theory—leave the reader with the impression that a celebrated artist has produced a self-serving, paint-by-numbers sketch that is unlikely to leave a lasting impression.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
I'm a huge McEwan fan--well, at least a fan of everything he has written from Enduring Love onwards. (I don't care for his earlier, kinkier, creepier fiction, although I did like The Child in Time.) But his latest, Sweet Tooth, fell short of my usual expectations. I missed the undercutting humor, the brilliant turns of language, the spot on insights into the human heart that characterize McEwan's work for me. Here, he seems a bit too caught up in the idea of the story itself: it's 1972, and a beautiful girl has an affair with an older married man who happens to work for MI-5. He recommends Serena for a position, and she eventually becomes part of a low-level operation called "Sweet Tooth," the purpose of which is to uncover leftist writers in various fields by setting up a front organization to fund their work. Acting as an agent of the foundation, Serena is sent to spy on a young professor.

Enough plot summary--I hate reviews that give away too much and spoil a book for others who might want to read it. Suffice it to say that there are some twists and turns and revelations as the story develops. Maybe it's because I'm not British, maybe it's because I've never been a fan of spy novels, maybe it's because the other book I'm reading at the moment is absolutely wonderful, but Sweet Tooth just never really engaged me. In novels outrageous, sentimental, or experimental, I've come to expect more from McEwan. He almost always stuns me, but the most I can say of this was is that it was OK.
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LibraryThing member AgneJakubauskaite
WHAT IS IT ABOUT?

Ian McEwan’s “Sweet Tooth” is an intriguing novel about love, literature, espionage and politics in Britain during the 1970s. The story’s protagonist Serena Frome is a recent Cambridge graduate with a degree in mathematics and a passion for novels. With the help from her lover, history professor and ex-intelligence officer, Serena lands a job at MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency. After months of nothing more than typing and filing, Serena’s love of literature comes in handy as she gets assigned to the operation Sweet Tooth. Her seemingly easy task to recruit a young writer Tom Haley becomes complicated when Serena falls in love with her subject.

THUMBS UP:

1) An enjoyable novel with an unexpected ending.
Although I wouldn’t call this story extraordinary, it was nevertheless a pleasant read, which kept me interested until the very end. And the ending is just great; it actually raised my opinion about the whole book.

2) Stories within a story.
To become acquainted with her subject, Serena had to read Tom Haley’s writings. I really enjoyed his short stories so smoothly incorporated throughout the book. Such a great way to freshen up the main plot as well as to show the reader Haley’s work rather than dully describe how good or bad it is!

COULD BE BETTER:

1) Political overload.
At least a third of the book is occupied by references to as well as discussions and opinions about British and world politics, which serve mostly as distractions rather than additions, are highly repetitive and often quite irrelevant to the main plot. Boooring! No need to show off, Mr. McEwan, just please get to the point before I doze off.

2) References not for everyone.
“Sweet Tooth” is full of literary and political references which are either related to Britain or to 1970s or both. Although I can see that someone who is familiar with all things British might really connect with the book, I found myself spending more time on Wikipedia than on the book itself. Soon I gave up and just skipped the parts I didn’t get, but I am sure I would have enjoyed the book so much more if I had more background in British literature and affairs during the 1970s.

VERDICT:

I generally liked “Sweet Tooth,” but at times it was hard to enjoy the story due to too much politics and all-British references. I sticked with it, however, and I am glad I did; the ending was worth the effort.
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LibraryThing member scottiwheeler
I've read every McEwan book when it's been released since 'The Innocent' and always relish his beautiful writing. In terms of his actual writing - the descriptions and wonderfully constructed sentences - this book doesn't disappoint. McEwan has a way of making the page come alive and I don't believe anyone in modern literature can better him.
However, the story ultimately doesn't deliver. At the beginning it is full of promise. Much intrigue, multiple routes the story could easily take and many interesting characters. This is MI5 and the cultural Cold War, and it's interesting how his fiction is weaved around a few facts and a few real people. But as you get further into the book you have the sneaking suspicion that this book might not actually get anywhere. Now, I don't mind a book that leaves me thinking at the end. But for me, this story goes a bit too far. Yes I understand that McEwan wanted me to realise there is another story to tell, but without the rest of that story it falls flat. And ultimately it left me colder than the war it was portraying and I felt disappointed in the investment I had given the book.
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LibraryThing member rab1953
This is a book with a flaw. It purports to be about propaganda and literature: both literature as a form of propaganda and propaganda in other forms. Our protagonist, Serena (!) is first educated about ruling class propaganda in The Times of London and elsewhere by her left-leaning tutor, who turns out to be a Russian agent. Characters spin their stories in their own way and have their favoured versions of the truth. Serena gradually learns to doubt the surface messages. She is brought into MI5, and becomes part of a low-level propaganda campaign, providing a disguised income to Tom, a promising novelist who writes about freedom and creativity. Part of Serena’s indoctrination is a review of the efforts of the Comintern and CIA propaganda branches to support their own literary favourites. In the end, the whole scheme comes apart, and as readers we have to re-evaluate the story of Serena.
Serena is more than a bit naïve, a shallow but voluminous reader who slowly learns to appreciate more literary writing. She is taken with Tom’s creative stories, sometimes quite moved by them, although the summaries she recounts seem rather bizarre, more like academic writing exercises than actually convincing stories. Serena falls for Tom and they have an affair, although she worries about how to tell him that she is a fraud who has been undermining his professional credibility. When Serena’s ex-lover brings Tom a different story that undermines her credibility, Tom turns the tables on her and makes up his own story. In the end, we see how creative story-telling is more successful than bureaucratically inspired propaganda, even in the hands of a literary writer.
All this is very post-modern, questioning the meaning of storytelling and point-of-view, which could be an interesting twist, although hardly a new idea.
The flaw, which I felt before reaching the various plot turns, is that it’s just not that interesting. The characters are sketched with little detail or depth, and their crises are not engaging. The plot seems to have so little at stake that it’s not interesting. The occasional background details of the social unrest of Britain in the early 1970s actually sparked more interest for me than the central story line. So it undermines the message that creative fiction is better than government propaganda when the creative fiction that I’m reading feels flat and boring.
On a side note, the story line seems to challenge the notion of artificial limitations on writers and that writers can’t appropriate someone else’s voice. McEwan writes in the voice of a woman as if to show that it can be done successfully. In fact, the voice of Serena seems convincing enough as a young woman in 1970s London, but the fact that the story she is describing isn’t very successful actually seems to support the notion that writing in the voice of another is inherently limiting and incomplete.
My reaction to the book is totally subjective, and perhaps others would react more deeply to the intensity of the love affair and the inherent conflict and loss that threaten it. But in the end, it seems to me to be another thought experiment that doesn’t really work rather than a successful novel. (For a thought experiment that does work even though much wilder than this one, I both enjoyed and bought into Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union.)
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LibraryThing member johnb123
Brilliant return to form by McEwan, his best since "On Chesil Beach" with an intriguing, unexpected and even romantic ending. Also enjoyed the cameo short stories and mathematical puzzle both of which have their logical and essential place within the story.

Whilst I have no idea of the prevalent culture within MI5 at that time (or any other time come to that), the snobby, vindictive pettiness rings true as does the depressing economic and political wasteland of that decade.… (more)
LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Fresh out of Cambridge and on the recommendation of her former lover, clergyman's daughter Serena Frome lands a job with MI5. It's the early 1970s, and the intelligence agency has just begun to employ women. Although Serena studied mathematics at Cambridge, reading is her true passion. She reads voraciously, completing several novels in a week. Her reading habits give her an opportunity to advance out of the clerical pool as part of operation Sweet Tooth. MI5 is secretly funding writers whose views are in opposition to communist ideology. Serena's task is to steer an academic with writing ambitions to accept an offer from a foundation. She hadn't reckoned on falling in love with the author, or the ethical compromises she'd have to make to keep her secret.

McEwan's novel revives the political and cultural atmosphere of 1970s Britain. Fictional characters discuss current events and mix with real literary figures like Martin Amis and Ian Hamilton. Even though the protagonist is female, it became increasingly clear that the novel is at least somewhat autobiographical.

I lived in London long enough to be familiar with its politics and its literary figures. This aspect of the book interested me and kept me turning the pages. What it lacks is an emotional punch. Serena's voice is so dispassionately analytical that she didn't seem to care how her story turned out. If she doesn't care, why should the reader? I couldn't get past hearing the story to living the story. The last chapter is proof that the novel doesn't really work. It wouldn't have been necessary if it had.
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LibraryThing member varwenea
Serena Frome, in 1972 England with the waging Cold War, finds herself to be an unlikely spy for MI5. An initiative codenamed “Sweet Tooth” funds writers whose ideals and writings align with the government thus indirectly manipulate the cultural norm of society. The funding is diverted through a foundation unbeknownst to the authors. Chosen for both her beauty and her fondness for literature, Serena successfully recruits Tom Haley, an aspiring writer with the potential to spread anti-communism messages. She also falls in love with him, and it’s a complex web of deceit and love.

I want to like this novel more, but the heavy handed application of politics, right wing messages, and sometimes history (even though I like history) made it taste like a cupcake with too much frosting. It didn’t read like a historical fiction nor a spy novel nor a love story. It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Weeding through the words, I liked it most when it was about Serena and all her relationships leading up to Tom.

Even for Serena, I started with wanting to slap some sense into her – first sleeping with multiple clumsy boys where she “lost my virginity in my first term, several times over it seemed”, then hooking up with an older married man more than twice her age even though she’s disgusted by his aged body, chased after her boss, and finally her assignee too. Yet it became evident that it’s the classic daddy issue – where her own dad is a small town Bishop and is distant towards his own daughters. She’s consistently seeking approval from older men. I hated seeing her hurt as a result.

While I don’t think I’d recommend this book in general, I liked it for myself with its many references to books, poetries, authors. It also helps that I tend to enjoy Ian McEwan’s writing and his musings such as this on love, “Box his socks? I would have knelt to wash his feet. With my tongue!” How does this not amuse you?

Some Quotes:

On Literature:
“Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert.”

On Sex – and the desire to please:
“He was truly attentive and skillful, and could keep going for as long as I wanted, and beyond, until I could bear no more. But his own orgasms were elusive, despite my efforts, and I began to suspect that there was something he wanted me to be saying or doing. He wouldn’t tell me what it was. Or rather, he insisted that there was nothing to tell. I didn’t believe him. I wanted him to have a secret and shameful desire that only I could satisfy. I wanted to make this lofty, courteous man all mine. Did he want to smack by backside, or have me smack his? Was he wanting to try on my underwear? This mystery obsessed me……. I wanted to help him, and I was genuinely curious. I was also troubled by the thought that I might be failing him….”

On Aging – only 44 years old!!
“I was a little put out first time to see what fifty-four years could do to a body. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, bending to remove a sock. His poor naked foot looked like a worn-out old shoe. I saw folds of flesh in improbable places, even under his arms. How strange, that in my surprise, quickly suppressed, it didn’t occur to me that I was looking at my own future. I was twenty-one. What I took to be the norm – taut, smooth, supple – was the transient special case of youth. To me, the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes. And now, what I would give to be fifty-four again! The body’s largest organ bears the brunt – the old no longer fit their skin. It hangs off them, like a room-for-growth school blazer. Or pajamas.”

On the “breast man” – I may have Lol’d:
“… And too obsessed by my breasts, which were lovely then, I’m sure, but it didn’t feel right to have a man the Bishop’s age fixated in a near infantile way, virtually nursing there with a strange whimpering sound…”

On the handling of books – a no, no for me too:
“…use to tell me off for leaving books lying around open and face down. It ruined the spine, causing a book to spring open a t a certain page, which was a random and irrelevant intrusion on a writer’s intentions and another reader’s judgment.”

On the British – I definitely Lol’d on this one thinking of a couple of Brit’s at work:
“I’m a coward in important confrontations. I suspected we would both choose the English solution and pretend that the conversation had never happened.”

On being a reader – I’ve certainly felt an invasion of privacy even reading book reviews:
“I was discovering that the experience of reading is skewed when you know, or are about to know, the author. I had been inside a stranger’s mind. Vulgar curiosity made me wonder if every sentence confirmed or denied or masked a secret intention…”

On reading poetry – I still suck at it…
“... There’s nothing wrong with your memory. Now try to remember the feelings.”

On that first night – I still remember this with a certain someone on May 23rd:
“… We’d been talking for hours, pretending that we weren’t thinking constantly of this moment. We were like pen friends who exchange chatty then intimate letters in each other’s language, then meet for the first time and realize they must begin again…”
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LibraryThing member freelancer_frank
This is a book about the relationship between empiricism, diplomacy and love. It has the best ending of any fiction that I have ever read. The ending reaches back across the novel in more than one register, revising assumptions in a very satisfactory way. It also reaches forward to open a number of differing interpretations of the work. The book also contains an amalgam of McEwan's greatest hits - the set piece, empirical description, slight of hand, suggestion and the comic turn.… (more)
LibraryThing member alexdaw
This is like an elegant puzzle. Some might argue that it is a perfect conceit. Set in the early 70s, it deals with a young woman tapped on the shoulder for recruitment into MI5. And then the trouble she gets into. As you do when you're a beautiful young woman working for the spooks.

I like McEwan's writing. Some younger folk might find the style too smacking of reminiscences though and tire of the 70s references.

My suspension of disbelief was stretched a bit with the 21-year old protagonist, Serena, having an affair with a 54-year old lecturer. However vigorous debate at bookclub sided in her favour - citing "that was acceptable in those days".

Much of the time I was impatient with Serena and didn't really like her much. But that didn't diminish my enjoyment of finding out how it was all going to end.

I'm almost tempted to re-read it as I reflect on how amusing it might be to see "in-jokes" after the big reveal.

This book won't change your life but it will make you think a bit. Particularly about the parts we play as writers and readers.
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LibraryThing member Brianna_H
**SPOILERS**
While the writing is deft and McEwan's characters are well written, this book is not the "thriller" it is touted to be.

The narrative merely plodded along until the surprising ending where it is revealed that what we thought was a first person account told by Serena, a British spy, is actually the novel written by and from the perspective of Tom, her lover and subject of her current spy assignment, Sweet Tooth.

In the last few pages of the novel, the readers are left with a letter from Tom to Serena where it is revealed that we have not been truly reading Serena's thoughts, impressions and recollections of the Sweet Tooth project but that we were reading Tom's retelling of those events and what he deduced were Serena's thoughts and feelings through some spy and detective work of his own.

We discover that Tom, who would have made quite the impressive spy and double agent himself, got the impetus for his novel by continuing his romance with Serena even after discovering that she is an M15 spy tasked with manipulating him into being an unknowing government pawn who writes anti-communist propaganda and delving into her past and spying on her every move.

We, the reader, also discover through this letter that Tom and Serena's ill-fated romance improbably survived their mutual betrayals and that they published the Sweet Tooth story, the novel we are reading, together.

The novel was not captivating or thrilling until the plot twist is discovered. Once revealed, the entire novel replays in the mind like a DVD on rewind and a new appreciation for McEwan’s writing and narrative prowess is felt, however, does the end justify the means? While I loved the ending and it made me appreciate the novel more as a whole, all the ending does is make me want to reread the novel with the benefit of knowing the denouement, it does not make me further appreciate my initial reading experience.

I would have loved this novel if the reader had been let in on Tom’s secret from the beginning. This novel was never a thriller and what did make it thrilling was carefully hidden until the last few pages, so we, the reader, would not have suffered any loss of suspense.
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LibraryThing member sarainoakland
I want to talk with someone who has read this book. Do not read the following if you have not yet read it. I don't want to spoil it for you. I felt very angry by the end. I had felt uneasy all along with the female protagonist. She seemed too vain and trivial, even though I liked her and cared for her, and then to have her just vanish, disappear into yet another male writer... maybe that made all of the former more believable, but it also felt like a double erasure. I know that there are layers of deceit in the book, and Serena certainly plays her part. Did she get what she deserved? Does she even exist? Maybe it's a cynical take on human relations, or a realistic one, or romantic? because the double deceit ends up canceling everything out (presumably she says yes to Tom's offer, because this book I just finished is supposed to be his book that had to wait for publishing). I found this twisted love sad, and Serena's passivity and need for love and attention frustrating and sexist.… (more)
LibraryThing member VivienneR
McEwan can get inside the head of a character better than any author I know. Added to that is his uncanny ability to re-create time and place accurately. Espionage, MI5, Cold War, Northern Ireland, with all the 1970s political and cultural references. McEwan is an engaging writer with superb literary skill. Even though this is not John le Carré espionage, and not even my favourite McEwan, that doesn't prevent it from being a first-rate novel, and one with a fine twist in the tail.… (more)
LibraryThing member otterley
So this time Ian McEwan plays with narrative and gender in a story about stories and gender roles in a way that is strangely circular and satisfying. Serena Frome, wholesome anti communist blonde, finds herself a desk job in a pre women's lib secret service. She's a sweet tooth, not quite a honey trap, but also a bookish pretty girl growing up in a place where she never quite gets the real plot. Serena is part of a world of conspiracies (the secret services of the 70s were full of mad conspiracy theorists convinced that Harold Wilson was a spy and the whole country was about to be taken over by revolutionaries) and her roles are either accidentally created by herself, driven by male fantasies or on the edge of something that might sit in a John Le carre novel. Thriller, romance, post modern game - take your pick, they're all here in this book. Whether the twists and turns quite work is a matter for debate, but this is readable, unsettling (as is typical McEwen) but also entertaining. Well worth a read… (more)
LibraryThing member justmelissa
In the first pages of this book, main character Serena Frome, summed up her reading preferences beautifully (I've edited to the present tense): "My needs are simple. I don't bother much with theme or felicitous phrases and skip fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I want characters I can believe in, and I want to be made curious about what is to happen to them." I thought, wow, that's exactly the kind of book I like - I can't wait to see what comes next! Unfortunately, McEwan then went on to bore me to tears with Serena's milquetoast personality and the dullest covert operation ever planned. Such a promising set up. Such a great disappointment.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
Another absolute gem from McEwan!
The novel is narrated by Serena Frome (to rhyme with tomb rather than comb), a Cambridge maths graduate. During her final year (1972) she had had an affair with Tony, a middle-aged tutor (in fact, the tutor of her ex-boyfriend) from one of the other colleges, who recommended that she should try for selection for MI5. She is indeed successful, though her relationship with Tony was brought to an abrupt end just before her interview.
Having been accepted into the Service she finds the work rather tedious and resents the fact that she is not only paid significantly less than her male counterparts but as a woman she has far fewer opportunities for career progression.
McEwan, through Serena, paints a wonderfully vivid picture of early 1970s austerity as the economy fails and industrial disputes become endemic. Meanwhile MI5 is investigating the possibility of anonymously supporting novelists whose work portrays a subtly anti-Soviet message. This is managed through an intricate network of fake charitable foundations, and the writers in question know nothing about the genuine source of their funding.
Throughout her school and university days Serena had been an avid reader of contemporary fiction, which gives her additional insight into the prospective recipients of the secret largesse. She is assigned to recruit and then run on Tom Haley, an aspiring don at Sussex University whose forays into journalism and short story writing have already sparked some interest. Serena duly grooms him for selection and, almost predictably, falls in love with him.
McEwan gives us frequent examples of Haley's writing (and they are quite superb - I could happily read a volume of Haley's short stories!), and Serena gives her own exegesis of several of these. Atone point Tom asks her to tell him something interesting of a mathematical nature so she gives a brief (yet commendably clear) summation of the Monty Hall conundrum to do with weighted probabilities. Tom then tries to incorporate this into a short story called "Probable Adultery" in which the protagonist has to guess which door conceals his estranged and adulterous wife.
As always with McEwan, the plot immediately engages the reader - I read this virtually at a single sitting, reading late into the night in my eagerness to finish. Now I just have to be patient while I wait for his next offering!
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LibraryThing member Davidgnp
I always expect so much of an Ian McEwan novel that when one slightly disappoints it really disappoints. In truth, I have given three stars out of respect for the author more than for the novel, which I won't be reading again (though I am currenly listening to the recorded serialisation from the BBC's Book at Bedtime).



Plot-wise there are too many false set-ups, starting with the opening couple of sentences: '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.' Now, I'm no great fan of the spy story, but having been tempted in with such self-advertised promise it was a real let-down to be served porridge as it might be cooked in a 1970s English seaside B&B; porridge which is anyway removed by the landlord before it's eaten, and replaced by another unexciting course. Or to move the metaphor into more familiar territory for the genre, it's like being offered fantastic sex only to find oneself engaged in an unadventurous affair that 'ends' in coitus interruptus.



Serena's 'mission' - to recruit a first-time novelist who will unwittingly accept funding from MI5 who have some vague hope that he will turn out a story that is a) pro-establishment/anti-communist and b) highly successful and influential - is neither gripping nor credible. That the writer Tom Haley, having been thus recruited, goes on to write a novel at apparently breakneck speed that immediately wins a major literary prize and another book within the short space of this narrative that is meant to upend Serena's (and our) expectations is a device too far for this particular reader.



Yet it is not plot but character and tone that left me most dissatisfied. McEwan is usually pitch-perfect. His characters chime with the times and he provides subtle but revealing psychological insights through and of his protagonists. I don't know whether it has anything to do with his choice of a female voice to deliver a first person narrative, but this time I was not convinced. Serena gives us her history articulately but with all the passion of a cv. She records her emotions but somehow is unable to convey them in more than mere words.



I felt no whirl in any of her relationships - with Jeremy, with Tony, with Max or with Tom - despite her professions and her descriptions of their lovemaking. Consequently, none of these characters lived for me. With the exception of Tony, I found it difficult even to get a handle on how old or young they were, relying on contextual evidence as a reminder of what I was meant to imagine. Max is a cardboard career civil servant - his drunken but apparently sincere declaration of love for Serena (a significant development in the story) left me as cold as he is. Tom, according to what Serena tells us, is attractive, desirable and sensuous, but I could only take her word for it - I did not 'feel' Tom at all, which is a major drawback in appreciating the central relationship, the spindle upon which the story is meant to turn.



Essentially, I didn't care enough either about the plot or the relationships to engage fully with this novel. McEwan blows into life several small flames of action, using some of them as a torch to lead us down wrong tunnels, but that merely frustrates, and the one main flame is too weak to create a real conflagration. Of course the story is competently written and there is some of the old McEwan art to admire, but that ain't enough for a modern author of whom (like Tom Haley in the novel) much is expected. This book, like its central characters, lacks real substance and fails to capture heart or mind.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
On one view, duplicity is the novelist’s stock-in-trade. As such, all novelists are spies, of a sort, and all novels spy novels. Or perhaps the doubleness of fiction makes all novels metafictional, and all novelists purveyors of metafictional theory. Or perhaps the hot pursuit of plot, that narrative drive, is equally meaningful whether one is chasing a real fox or a faux-fox. One or all these views might be held by Ian McEwan and in Sweet Tooth he puts them all into play.

Serena Frome, a beautiful young Cambridge graduate, is groomed by a Cambridge don to enter the British internal security service, MI5. It is 1972, a transitional year for the world economy as the OPEC embargo begins to bite, the coal miners’ union flexes its muscle, the Troubles in Northern Ireland are about to overwhelm the British mainland, a snap election leads to a change in government, and Serena Frome, against all good advice, falls in love. Unfortunately her love interest is also her work target, the writer T.H. Haley, and everything from that point forward (or possibly earlier) is not entirely as it seems.

This is rich ground for McEwan as he explores conflicting interests (taste?) in fiction. As Serena undergoes her own form of sentimental education, the reader glimpses snippets from T.H. Haley’s short stories and first novella that are eerily similar to McEwan’s own early work. These are just tasters, however, as McEwan slips from one style to another and back again; it’s a master class by a master craftsman, each sentence deliciously precise. It hardly matters that Serena’s inner conflict is less than fully believable, or that her external conflicts border on the preposterous. (Well, it might matter, but go with it and wait for the twist in the tail/tale at the end.)

For my own part, I do not believe that fiction is by nature duplicitous. I think that misunderstands the relationship between truth and fiction. That makes me less than sympathetic to McEwan’s metafictional theses. But such disagreement is no bar to recommending this finely constructed novel and whatever sweet truth it cares to impart.
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LibraryThing member Schatje
Serena Frome, after graduating from Cambridge, gets a position with the British Intelligence Service after being groomed for MI5 by an older man with whom she has an affair. Eventually she is given the job of covertly recruiting a writer who has shown anti-communism tendencies, in the hopes that his writing will balance the bias of conventional media. Of course Serena falls in love with her recruit, Tom Haley. As their relationship develops and becomes “mired in deceit” (319), Serena faces a dilemma: should she tell Tom the source of the stipend he receives that allows him to devote all his time to writing and thereby risk losing him because of her betrayal?

The novel is set in 1972, and there is much reference to domestic politics of the time: miners’ strikes, energy crises, IRA bombings. At times I found the political ramblings rather tedious. The other section of the book that is tedious is the retelling of Haley’s short stories - which Serena reads prior to deciding if his political views make him an appropriate candidate to be recruited as a soldier in the cultural war against communism. Reading the actual stories would have been much more interesting that being given not very succinct synopses.

Serena is not a likeable character. She has led a sheltered life, growing up “inside a walled garden, with all the pleasures and limitations that implies” (1). She is shallow and self-absorbed. For example, when she fears Tom might throw her out of his apartment, she thinks, “I would need to remember my hairdryer” (277). On her way to first meet Tom, she observes, “And how could anyone resist me in my confection of red, white and black . . . “(136). As she admits at the very beginning, she is not especially good at her job: “Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover . . .” (1). She has her positive traits such as “cleverness, beauty and tenderness . . . love of sex and fun . . . wry humour and sweet protective instincts” but for me these are outweighed by her “impulses of snobbery, ignorance and vanity, . . . minimal social conscience . . . [and]self-pity” (318).

The novel is a story of deceptions and half-truths. Serena certainly deceives Tom, but there are several other characters who also hide the truth. Furthermore, McEwan plays a trick on the reader, as becomes evident with the twist in the final chapter. At one point, when reading Tom’s stories, Serena comments, “Vulgar curiosity made me wonder if every sentence confirmed or denied or masked a secret intention” (109). Readers familiar with other of McEwan’s novels ("Atonement") will wonder as well as they read this novel. Upon finishing, my immediate reaction was to begin the book anew to examine it from the new perspective given by the ending.

Of course, there is foreshadowing, so the reader should be prepared. Tom and Serena have a discussion about literature: “I said I didn’t like tricks, I liked life as I knew it recreated on the page. He said it wasn’t possible to recreate life on the page without tricks” (184). Since Tom shares several biographical details with McEwan, it is a logical assumption that there will be a trick, that he will be the “double agent” Serena despises: “I wasn’t impressed by those writers . . . who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast . . . So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent” (66).

I enjoyed the discussions about the different types of literature. Serena prefers the realist approach; she believes writers “should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever they made up” (66). She goes so far as to admit, “I suppose I would not have been satisfied until I had in my hands a novel about a girl in a Camden bedsit who occupied a lowly position in MI5 and was without a man” (65). What a telling comment! Tom, on the other hand, is a modernist who admires the experimentalists (184-185). There is also reference to the “lower grade of fiction, like a mass-market romance” (65). The woman who writes “’a soppy romantic novel’” (264), what is commonly known as “’Commercial stuff’” (260), is paid “’a bloody fortune’” and the film rights are bought for her “’pulp fiction’” (295). Meanwhile, Tom, the serious writer, wins a prize but is still dependent on “an independent source of income” (319).

I shall return to this book again. I think McEwan’s technique is worth examining more closely, although at times I got the impression that the writing of the book was very much a metacognitive exercise, and I could almost sense a smugness in his cleverness. In my opinion, it does not rank as highly as "Atonement", but it would be unfair to expect every novel to be such a dazzling achievement.
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LibraryThing member dalzan
Cambridge student Serena Frome’s beauty and intelligence make her the ideal recruit for MI5. The year is 1972. The Cold War is far from over. England’s legendary intelligence agency is determined to manipulate the cultural conversation by funding writers whose politics align with those of the government. The operation is code named “Sweet Tooth.” Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is the perfect candidate to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer named Tom Haley. At first, she loves his stories. Then she begins to love the man. How long can she conceal her undercover life? To answer that question, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage: trust no one.… (more)
LibraryThing member eachurch
An engaging and entertaining romp through the muck of the intelligence world of early 1970s Britain. The middle section was a bit boggy, but the ending more than made up for it. I didn't see it coming, but I was willing to buy into it.
LibraryThing member Melanielgarrett

A bravura performance, as ever. If you are remotely interested in literary propaganda during the Cold War, this book was written for you. Ditto if you are even remotely interested in love, sex, the battles of the sexes, or random discussions about literary theory and what it is to read and/ or write. It's all here, wrapped up in glittery sentences and hilarious twists. I loved every page.… (more)
LibraryThing member loosha
McEwan's Sweet Tooth is marvelous! Glad I stayed with it through some murky middle ground, the ending makes up for all.

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