Published by Nan A. Talese
Publication date: November 13th 2012
Sweet Tooth is about Serena Frome, a pretty girl with a mind for math and love for reading. Raised in a quiet town and religious family her childhood is unremarkable. As she prepares for university she wants to study English but her determined mother decides that there will be nothing so fluffy as English in her daughter’s future but that she will study math and go on to a brilliant career in her own right. Serena attempts this but finds that her mathematical capabilities are limited in the sphere of academia. She muddles through but continues to indulge her passion for indiscriminate reading until she stumbles upon Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and becomes a committed anti-Communist. She begins writing articles for a local paper haranguing readers to awaken to the inequities occurring in the Soviet Union. Towards the end of her final year, she is introduced to a friend’s history professor, Tony Canning, and they begin an affair that will change Serena’s life, despite ending very badly.
It is Tony who thinks Serena’s mind for literature and her capitalist fervor would make her suitable for MI5, the U.K’s security agency. He uses his influence to get her a job but rather than the glamorous life of an agent, she finds herself in a roomful of other well-educated, pleasant girls, doing the filing. She chafes at this, going about her tedious duties and entering a mild infatuation with a young desk agent, Max Greatorex. Through him she learns of a new project called Sweet Tooth, for which Max thinks she’d be well suited. She is given the job, which is to covertly fund young writers inclined to support the causes of freedom and subvert Communism. Serena is to recruit Tom Haley, an author with promise. She follows orders, makes the offer to Haley, who after some consideration agrees to be supported by the Freedom International Foundation for two years, giving him the time to write the novel he wants without having to worry about money. Shortly after signing up Haley, in her duties to follow his work, they begin a friendship that progresses to a relationship. This is just one of the complications now facing Serena.
Ian McEwan’s ability to deftly manipulate the English language to extract the most meaning from the fewest words is not news but is always a marvel to read. Sweet Tooth is his first novel with a female protagonist since Atonement and he has developed his character well. Serena is both naïve and sophisticated for her age. Despite her love of reading and books and all they entail, she is possessed of a logical, unemotional mind. After her infatuation with Max has ended he shows up at her doorstep, professing his newfound love for her, and her reaction is one of distaste.
I couldn’t bear to look at him. I was irritated by the way he conflated his own shifting needs with an impersonal destiny. I want it, therefore…it’s in the stars. What was it with men, that they found elementary logic so difficult?
Through McEwan’s carefully controlled prose, Serena’s life unfolds at a smooth pace, even as an agent falling in love with her target. While she blurs and bends the boundaries of personal vs. professional she still retains a self-awareness that lends her calmness as she contemplates her life.
But no one over thirty could understand this peculiarly weighted and condensed time, from late teens to early twenties, a stretch of life that needed a name, from school leaver to salaried professional, with a university and affairs and death and choices in between. I had forgotten how recent my childhood was, how long and inescapable it once seemed.
This is in great contrast to the world around her. As a member of MI5 she is more aware than most of the turmoil that hovers over the country
But there was no better judgment, nothing to act against. Everyone had gone mad, so everyone said. The archaic word ‘strife’ was in heavy use in those rackety days, with inflation provoking strikes, pay settlements driving inflation, thick-headed, two-bottle-lunch management, bloody-minded unions with insurrectionary ambitions, weak government…
Despite this juxtaposition Serena seems to navigate the waters of new relationships and her professional life with the serenity her name suggests, making Sweet Tooth deceptively easy reading. The book flows and the reader flows with it. It is not until it is too late that one realizes that, in the world of espionage, nothing is ever what it seems.