I’m a big fan of Ian McEwan and have loved most of his novels, especially his darker ones. Both The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers stayed with me long after I read them and I loved the strong plot line of Atonement, although I was thrown by the way McEwan played with the reader at the end.
Some of McEwan’s plots are better than others and this for me is one of his weaker ones. I was unconvinced by his first-person female narrator, Serena Froome. McEwan keeps reminding us that she is beautiful and several men fall at her feet, yet for the reader she remains elusive. There is very little depth to her character and she simply comes across as frivolous and pasty. I also had to keep reminding myself that I was reading the words of a female narrator. This isn’t usually an issue for me and again I think it’s because Serena’s character is underdeveloped.
Sweet Tooth is set during the Cold War period of the early 1970s. Miss Froome is recruited to MI5, having been groomed by a former lover who brutally rejected her. She soon falls for her MI5 handler, Max, only to be rejected by him too. Then, she is handed an interesting case to work on: Operation Sweet Tooth. Her objective is to recruit up and coming writer Tom Haly on behalf of a fictional arts foundation. The foundation will supplement Haly’s salary so that he can focus on his anti-communist writing, which MI5 is keen to promote.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that Serena falls in love with Tom and she has to wrangle with her conscience over her duplicity. But before, she can confess to him, all hell breaks loose.
The final third of the story is the strongest part of the book and this is where the narrative picked up and moved along cohesively. The end was a delight and I didn’t see it coming.
There were sections early on in the novel that I skipped through. Maybe I was too tired, but I didn’t feel compelled to read the short stories written by Tom, which are threaded throughout the book. They weren’t short enough, there were too many of them and they broke up the evenness of the main story. I did wonder, however, if McEwan saw his younger self in Tom, given that the settings and people in Tom’s life are true to McEwan’s own. Perhaps he even wrote the stories himself years ago, but never had them published.
I would have enjoyed reading more about Serena’s activities at work. The sections set in the dark corners of MI5 were the most interesting for me. McEwan painted a convincing picture of what it was like to work in the world of espionage during such a pivotal period of history.
There are many references to literature in the novel and if you are a great reader of literary classics, you will enjoy the discussions Serena and Tom have over their favourite authors and poets.
This isn’t a spy novel as it lacks suspense, and it isn’t a romance as it offers much more than a love story. The trouble is, it sets itself up as a thriller but peters out to become a ponderous story about very little other than the power of literature and the relationship writers have with their readers. A disappointment for me, normally a big McEwan fan.