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Cannonball Read V: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

By Rachie | Book Reviews | April 11, 2013 | Comments ()


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My review of Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth should come with a disclaimer: McEwan is one of my favorite modern writers. When I read Atonement, the story stuck with me for days after I finished it. I also really liked Enduring Love. Something about the way he writes just really appeals to me so I'm not an objective reader here.

Sweet Tooth tells the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and her transition from dutiful daughter of an Anglican bishop to spy for MI-5 who are hoping to help foment national pride and anti-Communist sentiment through the clandestine funding of seemingly right-leaning authors. This is England in 1972 - the Cold War isn't over, the IRA is just getting warmed up, and the British economy is suffering. Serena's affair with an older man she meets while studying Mathematics at Cambridge leads her to a low-level job with MI-5. Her love of reading and her connection to the Cambridge lover draw attention to her and soon she is tasked with introducing herself to Tom Haley, a new writer with a few published short stories and journalistic articles teaching at the University of Sussex.

I really liked this book, but it does have its faults. I'll start with what I liked: as mentioned before I just really like the way McEwan writes: the phrasing, word choice, descriptions. I love the general feeling you get of how England in the 70s felt. Essentially this is a British period piece, and those are seriously some of my favorite things ever. The novel's ending is not wholly a surprise by the time you get there, but at the same time feels mostly unexpected and twisty. It also, at least in my opinion, still leaves some things up to interpretation. Judging from the reviews on Goodreads, quite a lot of the readers took the ending in one way, but I don't know that I'm wholly convinced we're supposed to. It almost feels like the ending of Inception - *SPOILER* - where we're not sure whether the top is going to stop spinning or not. I can't really be more clear without giving things away, but it's definitely interesting. Peppered throughout are excerpts and summaries of Tom's fiction, which are for the most part pretty interesting, and might warrant a separate collection if McEwan was feeling so inclined.

One of my issues with the novel was really the spy-ness of it. What Serena's doing isn't really what we'd think of as spying. Discussing why not would give some things away but it's not really your usual spy novel. It's mostly a love story/coming-of-age 'memoir.' I was looking forward to a McEwan take on a real spy novel, and I don't feel like I got that. Serena herself is sort of bland sometimes and seems aloof from her family and the one friend she has. The way the ending happens may explain all these faults away, if you interpret it like most people. I haven't decided whether I do or not, so I won't say I really found that much fault with her. The side characters are a little underdeveloped; Serena is pretty self-absorbed, and the novel is from her point of view, so it's not surprising. I really wanted to know more about her friend Shirley, for example, but we don't really get to.

If anything, read it and tell me which way you interpreted the ending!

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it , and find more of Rachie's reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Ian McEwans "Sweet Tooth" invokes different reactions. This story of Serena Frome whose transition from an ordinary girl and daughter of an Anglican Bishop who is recruited by the MI5 of Britain to spy for them. How many of our children are lured by the secret agencies with diverse agenda in their calendar.

  • Guest

    Yes Iop

  • Frome rhymes with "plume"? Really?

    Great review. I'm interested to read more about the spying-that-isn't-what-we-think-of-as-spying, and an ambiguous ending sweetens the pot.

  • Oh dear, I'm afraid a shallow, aloof protagonist combined with they spy-ness of it all prevents me from being the least bit interested in Sweet Tooth. I do love Atonement though and agree that McEwan's prose is heavenly.

  • brite59

    Nice review. I do like McEwan's writing, but I had a very difficult time with the character of Serena, I think self absorbed is kinder than saying how completely shallow she is. Given the twist at the end of the book, perhaps this characterisation is not inapt, but it I found it hard to connect to her from beginning to end.

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