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Monday, June 17, 2013

Review: 'Sweet Tooth'

By Ian McEwan
Literary fiction
November 2012
Nan Talese
ISBN: 978-0385536820

The tale of Serena Frome, how she got along at university and afterward, the great enterprise in which she was surprised to find herself undertaking, the ending in which all that was important is validated, this is the surface of Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth.

But what the novel is also about is the love of books, of writing, of connecting. In a meta layer that honors literature lover and larger-than-life McEwan friend Christopher Hitchens, to whom the book is dedicated, Sweet Tooth is a homage to a perhaps more innocent belief that literature matters. It may not literally save a life, as it did in McEwan's Saturday, but literature sure does make life worth savoring.

Specifically, the plot concerns young Serena's coming of age. She has spent her life doing what others have expected -- majoring in maths at Cambridge when she would rather have studied literature at a less distinguished university up north, then falling under the influence of an older professor, getting a job for a government agency when she least expected it and then being assigned to take a major role in an espionage project -- when all she really wanted to do was inhale books.

My needs were simple. I didn't bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn't mind so much of they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say "Marry me" by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeles desert. ... Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between -- I gave them all the same rough treatment.

Some reviewers have used this quote as an indictment of the novel, as being a comment of McEwan thinking women are stupid and silly. It didn't strike me that way and I still don't see it. Perhaps it's because I'm a book omnivore and not a genre snob. I don't insist on a happy ending, as the young Serena does, but I remember those days when I was thrilled about the way Jane Eyre ended and surprised at the turns Vanity Fair and Middlemarch took. Just because life doesn't often have a happy ending doesn't mean a reader can't want her book to end well on occasion. Sometimes, a happy ending fits.

In the same way she reads books in a breezy, suck 'em up and move on manner, and goes along with what's presented to her for an academic route and on the job, her attitude about relationships with men is to indulge herself with whoever is in front of her. In both her reading life and in her love life, however, there is the unexpected one who changes her outlook and, at length, her destiny.

Just as she seriously falls for the work of a serious writer (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and she falls after reading his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) who turns her from being a breezy columnist on books with a growing following into a harsh, tormented diarist people are not interested in reading, Serena falls for the young writer who she chooses for the espionage program she is assigned to. Sweet Tooth is the name of the operation, but it's also the way she consumes books and each new love affair. She is in love with love and, as Louisa May Alcott says, is too fond of books.

Sweet Tooth was generally not well-received by the critics. Perhaps, because Serena wrotes from the viewpoint of looking back at her early years, and because of the ending, this novel is being compared to Atonement and found wanting. I also get the sense that critics haven't approved of McEwan at least since Saturday, which I liked despite not rooting with a whole heart for the protagonist, and a climax that defied my ability to suspend disbelief. McEwan's heart was still in the right place.

The same can be said for Sweet Tooth. For all of Serena's apparent blase outlook and lack of thinking before she leaps, Serena's story, and her ultimate decision, show that love and literature are worthwhile choices for living a full life.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. This is NOT really a SPY NOVEL - It's a love story with a twist and lot of literary references - Plus a page turner - Reminded me a little of some of my favorite William Boyd novels.

    1. Well said. Perhaps trying to see it as a spy novel is why some critics were so disparaging of the book. But I was certainly glad to have read it. And now I'll be glad to go look for William Boyd; haven't thought of him in yonks.