Review

Sweet Tooth

by Ian McEwan

“I was described as an ‘undercover agent’, working for MI5, Cambridge educated, a ‘specialist’ in mathematics, based in London, given the task of liaising with Tom Haley to facilitate a generous stipend.”

Forced to study maths, Serena Frome always preferred English, having read novels with a passion. Maybe that’s why she accepted the position with MI5 aimed at finding authors whose ideas the government felt furthered its interests. Of course, the writers had no idea where the liberal funding was coming from.

Now, nearly 40 years later, Serena writes her life story, at least the part that involved her time with the English security service. In the early 1970s, women held mostly clerical jobs, assistant to the assistant type of roles. Even so, when Serena is recruited for service, she feels privileged. But she soon realizes that she is at the bottom of the bottom.

"Besides weaving fact and fiction into a rich fabric, Ian McEwan gives us a romance wrapped around a spy thriller, rife with sex and love, trust and suspicion, hope and despair."

A former lover has put in a good word for her, allowing her to be looked at for a position in a program that the Information Research Department is calling “Sweet Tooth.” Her job would be to check out the writing of several up-and-coming authors and encourage them in their craft, ostensibly through an arts foundation. If all goes well, they would never know where the money came from.

Of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way. The candidate Serena has chosen is a man named Tom Haley, who is struggling to make ends meet. Early on, Serena realizes that, not only does she love Tom’s stories, she loves Tom himself. It isn’t long before they begin seeing each other. Once the affair has started, Serena knows that she must confess her secret, but she is a romantic without courage. She is also a woman with a past, and now it comes back to haunt her --- in a big way. Soon she doesn’t know who to trust, and her usual bad judgment leads her to faulty conclusions. Who has betrayed her? She knows that someone has and that it likely will cost her her job, maybe even her lover. She just hopes it won’t cost her her life.

Set in the early 1970s, SWEET TOOTH portrays a government that is engaging in odious thought manipulation as though it were the norm. It depicts the repressive role women played in the workplace back then, and reveals the time to be pivotal in the easing of some stereotypes. It’s a historical romp around London and Brighton, with a small peek inside MI5. Besides weaving fact and fiction into a rich fabric, Ian McEwan gives us a romance wrapped around a spy thriller, rife with sex and love, trust and suspicion, hope and despair.

And, as Serena reads Tom’s stories, growing deeper involved with each one, she also allows us a glimpse at his writing, such that we are treated to stories within the story.

With his usual attention to detail and flair for description, McEwan gives us Serena Frome, a complex character fraught with flaws --- and his first female protagonist since 2001’s ATONEMENT. She possesses almost fatally poor judgment, making one bad decision after another. Readers are treated to a look back at the wreck she made of her life, seen now from the perspective of a woman in her 60s. At the end of the book, one is left wondering if she finally made the right decision. What happened after the last page was turned?

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on November 15, 2012

Sweet Tooth
by Ian McEwan