My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The opening paragraph of Sweet Tooth reveals the story’s end, which is a tidy way of compelling you, dear reader, to focus on the important parts – the middle and such. You know it ends badly, so you can’t possibly be disappointed; therefore, don’t worry about it.
But then you remember that you are reading Ian McEwan, master of unreliable narrators and oft-tricksy endings, and you wonder – am I being told the truth of the ending as it is, or the truth as the narrator would have me see it? And suddenly you are on edge, tense, looking for clues. Oh, Ian, you clever, clever man.
The plot is playful: a young co-ed, Serene Frome (rhymes with Plume), flops a bit in her maths degree and flounders after graduating Cambridge in 1972. Although well-bred and well-read, Serena’s ambitions are limited. But she is recruited, by way of an affair with a retread professor, into the secretarial pool of MI5. Seeing her pliability, borne of boredom and upper-middle class ease, her superiors envelope her in an undercover operation, code-named “Sweet Tooth.” Sweet Tooth is a cultural op – its mission is to identify and promote British writers who demonstrate anti-Communist philosophies. The writers are led to believe a literary foundation is behind the generous financial support and their only responsibility is to write away, honing their brilliance. Serena’s assignment is to recruit a young writer and English professor, Tom Haley, into the scheme. It’s not such a difficult mission, as it’s hard to imagine any struggling writer turning down a pot of cash from a well-known foundation which has just stroked his ego until he is as content as a cat with a bowl of cream. But Serena manages to muck things up royally, by falling in love with her target.
Sweet Tooth isn’t really a Cold War cloaks and codes thriller, as much as its pretty and pretty vacant heroine would love it to be (she’s a simple girl who just wants to have fun. Or, if she can’t have that, she’d be happy curling up in her dreary bedsit with a novel – Jacqueline Susann is just as good, if not better than, Jane Austen, thank you very much). It’s a slowly unraveling set piece, chock full of deceptive aplomb, in which everything turns to custard with surreal glee.
Unfortunately, there are all sorts of draggy parts in the middle. But don’t you dare skim, because you’ll miss the clues that’ll catch you in a cross-double cross that I dare not spoil here. And lots of author self-indulgence, as McEwan weaves in snippets of his short stories and real life characters from his early career; it’s a satirical rewriting of the author’s own history. The short stories within the story are terrific and the spy agency-funded rise and hilariously ironic fall of a writer – based on a true story – is fascinating.
Hang out with the fact that Serena stops sounding like a young woman coming of age in the early 1970s and starts sounding the way a man would imagine a young woman would think and behave; McEwan is particularly adept at writing women and I couldn’t quite accept a failure here (Blue’s Clues!) File away as interesting asides, but let off the hook, the red herrings of the IRA and Russian double-agents and jilted MI5 bureaucrats. They won’t get you anywhere. And sad is the case of Tony Canning, one of the most interesting subplots – the one that could have turned this book from writer’s folly into legit thriller: his story dead-ends with nothing but a nosebleed to show for all the trouble.
I’m equivocating – I can’t quite commit to saying that I think Sweet Tooth is a great book – I found it a bit too smug to buy a theme of the power of literature (as some reviews have claimed) – there was too much stifled laughter and indulgent sweet (tooth) ness for something so grand. It also wasn’t that great of a thriller, which it doesn’t pretend to be, (but again, other reviews have found a John Le Carre note that I can’t carry). But it is terrifically entertaining – all plummy accents and witty repartee that make Americans swoon in equal measure for Downton Abbey and 007 – and McEwan’s fine, fine writing is irresistible.
And then there is that Absolutely Fabulous ending.
Enjoy Sweet Tooth. Seriously. Don’t read heaps into it, just enjoy the read.