Sweet Tooth

A Novel

McEwan, Ian

Book - 2012
Average Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.
Sweet Tooth
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.

Publisher: New York : Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, c2012
Edition: 1st American ed
ISBN: 0385536828
Branch Call Number: FIC MCEWAN 2012
Characteristics: 304 p. ; 25 cm


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Mar 03, 2015
  • JimLoter rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

A couple of other reviewers have noted that the review they were writing in their head while reading this novel was undermined by the final chapter in which all the cheesy pretensions and irritating literary devices are explained. I have to admit that as I nodded in agreement with them, I also realized how sad it is that I read novels now with some percentage of my attention given over to what I will write in my inevitable Goodreads review.

So, the "review I was writing in my head" was going to focus on themes of deception and inauthenticity. It would have explored Serena's empty, self-delusional identity as she glides about with very little intention or ambition in almost utter mediocrity through university, a trite affair with a married professor, and into the dull, bureaucratic, linoleum-clad corridors of MI5 where she remains "a clerical officer of the lowest grade." Dull, but, as she says, "I really was pretty."

Pretty Serena is then given a chance to shine: Operation Sweet Tooth, an ill-conceived and misguided propaganda project thought up by petty agents more concerned with getting a leg up on MI6 than making any real progress in the Cold War. She immediately and quite predictably falls for her "agent," Tom, a young writer who showed up on someone's radar as an anti-Communist conservative but who, in reality, is about as much an empty vessel as Serena. Serena spends a lot of time reading Tom's stories - and recapping them in irritatingly lengthy passages - before deciding that she's probably going to fall in love with him. After they meet and, predictably, fall in love, the two drink a lot of Chablis and have a lot of sex throughout the duller middle parts of the book until events transpire that cause Serena to reflect on the nature of deception. "I knew that before this love began to take its course, I would have to tell him about myself. And then the love would end. So I couldn’t tell him. But I had to."

And there we would have had the central theme - Tom is in love with Serena, but Serena is not who he thinks she is. And without Tom, Serena is an anonymous government clerk with no personality. They need each other. If that had been it, this would have been a heartbreaking love story with the trappings of a spy novel and some weird, overly long, summaries of Tom's short stories.

When the other shoe drops, it is not as expected and everything that was irritating and puzzling and ... just weird about the first 90% of the book suddenly makes sense.

Feb 22, 2015
  • empbee rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

Good read.

Aug 09, 2014
  • uncommonreader rated this: 2 stars out of 5.

Somewhat interesting in terms of the actions of MI5 against the left, although the novel did not particularly evoke the period of the early 70s. I did not like McEwan's "clever" presentation of a partial self-portrait. Although readable, in the end, the novel is disappointing.

Jan 29, 2014
  • Homeworkforme rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

McEwan at his best. Great story, great characters and a twist at the end.

Jan 01, 2014
  • debwalker rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

London early 70s, and a young Cambridge grad gets caught up in cold war subterfuge. Love, betrayal, and a clever twist at the end.

Dec 25, 2013
  • happycanuck rated this: 2 stars out of 5.

found it boring and did not persevere to finish the book.

Nov 05, 2013
  • GLNovak rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

This book is a quick read and presents an interesting idea for the clandestine waging of the cold war in the 1960's and 1970's, but you have to persevere. I found Serena, the main character, and in fact all the characters a bit flat and unlikable. The story itself ranges over events a bit superficially and everywhere we are Serena is doing pretty much nothing but reading, typing, having meetings, having sex and questioning everything she is doing. The ending provides an answer to the whole tone of the book but to me is not really satisfying as the characters did not live enough to make that end very believable.

Oct 03, 2013
  • jmikesmith rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

Ian McEwan is one of those writers whose language just flows across the page, and you can tell that every sentence is carefully crafted. His writing is not convoluted or complex, but it's not everyday speech, either. On top of that, McEwan creates stories that seem ordinary on the surface, but with hints that there is something much deeper going on. Sweet Tooth is one such story. Set in the early 1970s and narrated in the first person by Serena Frome (rhymes with "plume") from the vantage point of the 2010s, this novel focuses on Serena's short but intense career with Britain's MI5 spy service. Young Serena is brought into Sweet Tooth, a project to provide government funding to young authors who, it is hoped, will write stories with a pro-democracy, anti-Communist slant. Serena poses as a representative of the foundation to recruit aspiring writer Tom Haley to the cause. The problem is, she falls in love with Tom. She is torn between her love and her obligation to keep her real job and the real source of his funding secret from him. The climax of the novel builds when word of Sweet Tooth makes it into the press and Serena has some hard choices to make. In the final chapter, McEwan managed to totally upend my perspective on the story. I was surprised and delighted by how it turned out. At times, the story can seem a bit slow and meandering. Not much seems to happen at times. But the language is always astounding, and I think it's well worth the wait to get to those final few pages.

Sep 26, 2013
  • stewh rated this: 2 stars out of 5.

Not up to McEwan's standard.

Aug 19, 2013
  • spacebum25 rated this: 1 stars out of 5.

I have not read any works by this author before but this book showed up on a "suggested reads" for me. I didn't think too much of the book - found it boring. Having been in my 20's in the 70's, I found nothing interesting or insightful from the characters or the plot.

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Dec 02, 2013

...was deliberately and systematically boring me to drive me away. It was insensitive of me not to notice, poor fellow, he was having to overreach himself and it was not a good performance, hopelessly overdone.


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