Sweet Tooth

sweet toothThe last book for spy week is Sweet Tooth, written allegedly by Ian McEwan. It may be that reading so much about espionage has given me a conspiracy complex, but I was tempted to ring up the publisher and say ‘What have you done with Ian McEwan and who is this strange imposter?’ It’s just that the novel was so….cheery. And playful. Nothing dreadful happened in it, unless we count the early 70s in the UK. You wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anybody, and this from the man who used to bring us butchery, bestiality, incest and dwarves!

Well, anyway. Serena Frome (pronounced to rhyme with ‘plume’) is an extremely attractive good girl swot, daughter of a gentle Anglican vicar and a rather bossy mother, who happens to be quite good at maths and likes reading. Her mother persuades her that it’s her duty as a woman to take on a challenging male subject at university and so Serena goes off to Cambridge and gets herself a deplorable third class degree. But all is not lost. The reading has continued apace, leading to a brief stint as a book critic on a student rag. She loses the job when her head is turned by Solzhenitsyn (who she discovers right after reading Ian Fleming) and for a few heady weeks she fills her column with serious political outrage rather than the fluffy chat she was commissioned to write. But in turn, this brings her to the attention of a middle-aged history don with whom she has a rather beautifully described affair, and who grooms her for the Secret Service.

Like Emma Bovary before her (and what would have happened to her if Solzhenitsyn had turned out to be the literary squeeze of choice?), reading saves her and gets her into trouble at the same time. Serena’s expectations of a glamourous life with MI5 are soon destroyed by the reality of low-paid grunt work and a grungy London bedsit. She can’t resist an attempted dalliance with a fellow operative that doesn’t really go anywhere, and she makes a good girl friend only to fall out with her. McEwan paints a somewhat perfunctory portrait of the troubled seventies here, with galloping inflation, the three-day-week and the emergence of the IRA offering far more cause for alarm than the elderly Cold War, and everything is in awkward transition. The bureau has no more idea how to treat women than terrorists (who are probably not too far apart in their mental hierarchy). But then Serena does get the hint of a job, although it seems a strange one, and it’s her skills as a reader that stand as qualification.

The Service wants to fund right-minded authors, paying them a generous living wage in the hope (no Russian-type oppression here) that they will write the sort of rebuttals of Communism that encourage the West to stay free. They’ve identified a possible candidate, one Tom Haley, writing a PhD at Sussex and author of some intriguing early stories, and Serena is sent, in the guise of an innocent and independent representative of a literary foundation, to get him on board. And here’s where the novel really starts, with a series of interpolated stories that Serena reads in preparation for her trip. The stories bear an uncanny resemblance to the early work of none other than Ian McEwan, and as Tom Haley grows in literary stature, hanging out with Martin Amis and being taken on by the publisher Tom Maschler (McEwan’s first publisher), and writing the kind of book that will make Serena’s employers foam at the mouth, you sense the author having a great deal of fun. Inevitably, given Serena’s history up to this point, she falls in love with her charge, and thereupon begins the breast-beating about whether and/or how she can possibly tell him she is not who he thinks she is.

Given that pretty much all money is dirty money somewhere along the trail, and given that most aspiring authors would sell their grandmas to fund full-time writing, the dilemma can seem a bit quaint and twee. But it’s all very entertaining, so it doesn’t really matter. We also seem to have turned a corner, leaving the official realm of spies and their usual stories far behind. But as Bookboxed put in a comment yesterday (and I hope he doesn’t mind being paraphrased), the novel is playing with the whole concept of spying, and if we leave the Cold War trappings behind, what we get does hunker down close to the root of the concept: people putting each other under surveillance and keeping secret their reasons for doing so. It is concerned with what spying is basically about, and the end of the novel has a few big surprises in store. There were times in this novel when I really wasn’t sure about the tropes McEwan was playing with, whether they were too over-used to be any good. But I have to hand it to him, he pulled it out of the bag at the end, which left me with a big and completely unexpected smile on my face. Now the question is: when the ransom demand comes in for the original Ian McEwan, should we pay it or let this chap carry on his place?


22 thoughts on “Sweet Tooth

  1. Thank you for being wary of giving away details – I just picked this up myself and look forward to the various surprises! Your review makes it sound like more fun than I expected. As you say, what have they done with the original Ian McEwan? (Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy his novels, but I wouldn’t usually describe them as fun.)

    • Rohan, I am delighted to hear that you are going to read this – can’t wait to read your review! I certainly didn’t expect this to be so good-natured, but it was a pleasant surprise.

  2. I was greatly entertained by this review, and I am thinking of giving this book a whirl…”Atonement” is one of my all-time favorite books, but by God, it’s also the only Ian McEwan book I managed to get through without … well…it’s the only one I managed to get through, and like a fool, I somehow expected his other books to be similarly compelling/readable/not something that would make me want to put my fist through a window.

    Many broken windows attest to my folly.

    • Lol! Well, we need to think about this carefully, as I fear for your windows! And I really need to read Atonement – it was on my list at the start of the year (and what DID happen to that list?). If I’d read this blindfold – as it were! – without knowing who’d written it, I would never, ever have guessed McEwan. I’d love to know what you think if you do read it – or just tip the wink and I’ll listen out for the sound of breaking glass…. 🙂

  3. From reading your review, sounds like a ready script for a movie, McEwan or not. And guess what, right after I wrote that first sentence I Googled it, indeed, its film rights had been sold. You can check it out here. Your post is most entertaining, and I do hope the movie will live up to your review.

    • Arti, I am looking forward to your review of the film already! You really have your eye in for guessing which ones are going to translate to the screen – I’m most impressed. 🙂

      • Don’t think I’ll see the movie. After reading the book, I think what we have is much ado about nothing. And… you just may be right, this could well be an imposter writing. I can’t believe how the book ends, those last pages of ‘wrapping up’. I’ve been very patient all through, finding Serena digging hole after hole for herself to fall right in. I think McEwan has done a disservice to females as a whole, and, wrapped it up like that as some sort of ‘peace offering.’ Do people really think like these characters… do students and profs and people working at MI5/6 are all like them, sex-obsessed? I think whoever that wrote this book did have the silver screen in mind when writing it, knowing how hot and juicy scenes can ‘justifiably’ be included as the story ‘requires’. Sorry litlove, I can’t help but rant after just finishing it. 😦

  4. Oh Litlove, I lost track how many times you made me laugh in this post! If McEwan is equally as playful in his book, I do believe I will have to read it!

  5. This got such luke war reviews in the press that I haven’t bothered to read it but I’m looking for a third ‘spy’ book to put on a Summer School list and I think this might be just different enough to make a contrast with the le Carre and the Frayn.

    • There are other books I wish I could have got to for this week – Charles Cummings’ latest one In A Foreign Country (which won a crime award) and Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky. Both look good and may be worth checking out. And I’m longing to know how your summer school fair with the spy theme – do report back, won’t you please?

  6. I’m fond of the draker sides of McEwan sometimes but they can be tiring at times too – so this sounds like a refreshing departure from his usual things. I still own a collection of unread books by him so will not get this soon.
    I think the first book you reviewed for this series is still the one which I’d pick up first.
    You were quite busy and I enjoyed following you on your themed reading adventures.

    • I know just what you mean. I’ve forbidden myself from buying any more Paul Auster novels until I’ve read at least some on my shelves! And yes, I think you might like Elizabeth Wilson – it’s probably the most intelligent of the novels from this week.

  7. Had to chuckle at this post–I have only read a smattering of McEwan, but now that you mention it, it is sort of dark and depressing at times. This must be his alter ego writing? I want to know which book had the dwarves?? I was wavering picking this up since I have (unsurprisingly fallen so far behind in my reading plans), but now I think I am going to march right over to my pile and pick it up and start reading now. Who cares if I already have too many books on the pile (when don’t I?!). As weird as it sounds, and as scary as the 70s were (I was too young to be a real active participant), but I have a strange nostalgia for the 70s, so this book has just become all the more appealing! Is this the last of your spy novels or are there more?

    • Heh, I think it’s a story from In Between The Sheets that features a dwarf! That was definitely a disturbing collection! I rather like the idea of him having an alter ego – that would be pretty good. I know what you mean about the 70s – I was three in the year this book features, so it’s no wonder I couldn’t recall the events. But it was very interesting to read about them. I’d like to read another book that’s more atmospheric about that era – Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is one that’s been on the list for an age. Alas, this was the last spy novel I could get through before the week began. But I’ve got Charles Cummings’ latest novel and The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer, both of which I really want to read – you know how it goes!

  8. Great review and I love how you play around with the strand about who is the real author. I loved that ending, far more integral than the ending of Atonement, and I’m glad you had a similar reaction. Of course you have centred on the spy strand as befits your week’s theme, but I found more and more about identity and the self as I read on. McEwan (chose version) looks at how we manufacture ourselves, create stories of ourselves and offer them out to others. Of course we don’t know how those presentations will be interpreted and what other ideas and stories others will attach to us. We can be deceived and self-deceived in more ways than one. I don’t wish to give much away, so I’ll stick with minor points. Serena’s early romance has two endings and reactions from her, then there’s the real reason she gets into spying, and the story of the mannequin has a lot to say about how we project especially in romances, related to Serena and her handler (is that the right word?), or Serena’s view of her sister’s view of her, or the cause of the bloodstain. I think on this level the McEwan like stories and the questions of authorship you mention have another context as well as spying. I think the quaint and twee dilemmas are linked to Serena’s personality and are less out of place in that context, the somewhat staid bishop’s daughter. In a way she is given a sister who is the flip-side to her, to emphasize her conventionality. As to the McEwan lite you evoke I think it has been gaining over the years, as in his previous novel Solar, and Amsterdam, Saturday and On Chesil Beach are noticeable for the lessening of the gruesome compared to his earlier outings. I have no idea why the reviews (only read afterwards), were not better as I really enjoyed Sweet Tooth. Perhaps the reviewers preferred the earlier McEwan, many having heavily endorsed that version, but who knows what they really think? Hope this is not too long!

    • Wow, not too long at all, and fascinating! I love the points you make and will go away and think about them more. But yes, I found it to be more about reading and writing, and issues of meta-textuality, and the notion of projection is very interesting and definitely spot on. I hadn’t thought about Serena’s sister much, and to place her as counter-balance is very insightful. And I do agree that he’s become lighter over the past few years – I’m sure that the reviewers liked it less because it wasn’t actively disturbing! I am more than ready to welcome this new phase – it’s never too late to have a sense of humour, or a tender heart, even if those things are unfashionable in the highest literary reaches…. 😉

  9. I haven’t read a lot by this author (only Atonement, before this one) but I also enjoyed the twists and turns of Sweet Tooth. In the end, it’s such a conventional story, but as you note, it plays with the conventions in a charming way. And the title is lovely, with the way it makes readers think of things they want that are bad for them (that was the theme of my review).

    • Oh I’m so glad that you enjoyed this one, too. I must go and find your review (and I’m not sure how I missed it). I completely agree with your assessment here. And I really must read Atonement – I’ve been wanting to for ages and ages….

  10. I’ve just started reading this, so fell on your review with great interest. Have to say I thought his previous novel Solar was brilliant and mordantly funny – though strangely (or perhaps not) it really set the critics carping.

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