Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth is a thoroughly enjoyable novel that’s hard to describe without leading you, turn by turn, through the plot, but I’ll try. Set in the late 1960s, it’s a British spy novel with a female protagonist (Serena Frome) with a literary background who given the task by her MI5 boss of “handling” an up-and-coming author. It’s a “slow burn” – meaning a project that will pay off a long way down the road. Beautiful Serena is the front for a fake foundation that is bestowing “grants” on ten young writers. The hope is that, freed from the burden of making a living, at least one of these writers will let loose their perceived anti- Communist predispositions and write fiction that affects the political landscape through the broader culture. Serena’s prey: Tom Haley. Of course, they begin an affair almost immediately.
This sounds simultaneously convoluted and formulaic. Blame me, not McEwan. If anything, he upends the genre. Sweet Tooth is more like a brighter, less dense John LeCarre novel, with a smarter, slightly less self-aware Bridget Jones as Smiley. By the end of of the novel, we learn that practically all the characters are not what they seem, including the narcissistically clueless Tom Haley.
For McEwan fans, you’ll find that Sweet Tooth has some of the black humor of his early books (but not as dark as The Cement Garden) and the character focus of his later books (but not as tragic as Atonement).
Not everyone loves the book. Interestingly, Maureen Corrigan in her review on NPR gives Sweet Tooth low marks, finding it misogynistic. In Corrigan’s reading of the book, McEwan belittles women as literarily shallow and even “pokes fun” at the readers who believed, as Serena did, the story he was relating. Hmmmm…. perhaps Corrigan knows McEwan personally and believes him to be a bit puffed up and self-important? However, it is true that Serena seems to be easily fooled and even made a fool of. That’s balanced by the fact that her colleague, Shirley Shilling, is a strong character who takes no guff and emerges victorious on her own terms.
The New York Times reviewer has fun tracing the real people in Sweet Tooth, both those named and those “lightly fictionalized,” as well as parallels with McEwan’s own life (putting McEwan in as Tom Haley, the ever-so-smart one). So perhaps there’s a little inside baseball here, and that in influences Corrigan’s perspective. You decide!