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84 of 89 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clever
I wasn't convinced by McEwan's attempt at humour in Solar and this is very much a return to what I think he is good at. The story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume!) and narrated by her, it tells of her progression from studying maths at Cambridge (whilst nurturing her real passion for literature) to her recruitment by MI5 in the early 70s. MI5 at that time is very much...
Published on 22 Sep 2012 by John Tierney

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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Like an ice sculpture: perfectly carved but rather cold
McEwan's latest novel charts the progress of Serena Frome from the seat of her father's bishopric, via a mathematics degree at Cambridge, to a junior role in MI5 during the 1970s. Much of the novel is taken up with her romantic engagements, professional disappointments and love of literature until all of them become bound together in a single operation, Sweet Tooth...
Published on 18 Oct 2012 by Amazon Customer


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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Like an ice sculpture: perfectly carved but rather cold, 18 Oct 2012
By 
Amazon Customer (Leamington Spa, Warwickshire United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Hardcover)
McEwan's latest novel charts the progress of Serena Frome from the seat of her father's bishopric, via a mathematics degree at Cambridge, to a junior role in MI5 during the 1970s. Much of the novel is taken up with her romantic engagements, professional disappointments and love of literature until all of them become bound together in a single operation, Sweet Tooth.

There are writers -like Martin Amis, who appears as a minor character in this novel- who excel at writing gorgeous, funny, efficient prose and who create engaging characters but struggle to package it into a wholly satisfying novel. McEwen is at the other end of the spectrum; the complex structures of his novels are marvellously articulated but the tone and characters feel cold and, consequently, can leave the reader a little apathetic.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this novel only really seems to catch light in the latter third, when the plot (and the obligatory twist) accelerate and come to the fore. In comparison, the more prosaic early chapters seem to drag. There is some interest to be had from the minutiae of the security services, considerations on literature and a nice evocation of the winter of discontent. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to warm to Serena, who is so central to the novel and whose tribulations struck me as mundane and her insecurities annoying rather than endearing. There were also few tics in her first person narrative (repeated phrases, the sex descriptions) that seemed careless.

Retrospectively, there is a deus ex machina that absolves McEwan of stylistic flaws in use of language and characterisation but this seems rather egregious given that he himself, in interviews, has complained that first-person narratives are often used to hide poor style behind characterisation.

That is not to say this isn't a good novel; McEwan is, after all, one of Britain's preeminent living novelists. The plot is cunningly constructed and the twist itself is clever: it raises all sorts of questions regarding fiction and reality. There is genuine excitement to be had in the final third, although in the construction of such a meticulous plot, there were times, particularly in the early chapters, when McEwan seemed to allow the seams show. The plot is, nevertheless, an ideal instrument to play with themes of truth and lies, duty to self and duty to country, and autobiography and fiction. McEwan adroitly riffs on these themes with rare clarity.

Overall, this is a clever and adroitly constructed book that, for me, just lacks a little humanity.
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84 of 89 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clever, 22 Sep 2012
By 
John Tierney (Wirral, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Hardcover)
I wasn't convinced by McEwan's attempt at humour in Solar and this is very much a return to what I think he is good at. The story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume!) and narrated by her, it tells of her progression from studying maths at Cambridge (whilst nurturing her real passion for literature) to her recruitment by MI5 in the early 70s. MI5 at that time is very much a male-dominated organisation and the women recruited are given mostly admin tasks. Serena has left a relationship with an older married man at Cambridge (who groomed her for MI5) and is attracted to Max, a senior colleague at work. But her life changes when she is given a real assignment - managing a young author, Tom Haley, who MI5 believe to have the right (sic) tendencies to write the type of thing they like i.e. anti-communist essays and novels. Serena persuades Tom to accept funding (with its real source hidden) to support his work, but things are (somewhat predictably) complicated as she is immediately attracted to him and vice versa. From then it's only a matter of time before things start to unravel and although the novel is not exciting as such, the prose is extremely taut and is fairly un-putdownable.

I was concerned early on in the book that there was a lot of writing about writing going on, something I detest. And there are a lot of references to books and authors - there is even a very famous author who has a part in the book, although we never "see" him directly. But eventually I was won over by how McEwan meshes the plot, discussions about literature and even some short stories (including one about the Monty Hall problem (worth googling) and how it might - and might not - be the source of a short story about infidelity. The sense of the early 70s is well done and it there are fairly obvious points made about global financial crises then and now, although done implicitly and handled well. I couldn't spot many anachronisms and even if I could these could be explained away by the fact that Serena is narrating this from the present day.

I was a bit concerned about whether the author's voice was convincing as a woman in her sixties remembering her life in her late teens and early twenties and I have to say that I am sure this book will be up for a Bad Sex Award next time they are on. But it's certainly a page-turner and the final quarter of the book is extremely well handled and manages to throw in a twist or two. I don't think this is as good as, for example, The Innocent or The Child In Time (my favourite McEwan book) and it doesn't have the ability to shock like his early works (e.g. The Cement Garden) but it's very well done and certainly worth a read.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An enthralling story, with numerous interesting layers, 10 April 2014
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Paperback)
I loved everything about this book. It poses as a tale of espionage but in fact turns out to be so much more than that - it's about love and trust, about writing and reading. The world of politics and MI5, from its low level offices of monotonous paperwork to its more exciting side of undercover operations and employee betrayals, comes second to the tension and suspense built through the development of character relationships. The 1970s setting is superbly depicted and I found Serena Frome to be a very convincingly real protagonist, with a distinctive personality and background established from the beginning, whose thoughts and actions are always true to the attributes that McEwan bestows upon her. The nuances of her emotional journey are explored in impressive and affective detail, and consequently her story is so incredibly engaging that I longed to know what happened to her and her surrounding characters beyond the final page of the book. McEwan's prose is smooth and vivid, and the novel's final twist is ingenious.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Playing Games, 1 Jun 2013
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Paperback)
If, like me, you regard "Atonement" as the high-water mark of McEwan's achievements and were comprehensively unimpressed by "Solar", you will probably spend most of your time reading "Sweet Tooth" concluding McEwan's lost it. With a central character who's a a woman working for M15, you might be expecting something quite new from McEwan, a spell-binding story of espionage, just to show he can be a master of the genre. But although there is plenty of rather clunkily researched historical and political detail, you will realise by page fifty, it is not going to be that kind of work. By page one hundred, you may well be wondering what kind of work it is, the writing being so mediocre, the narrative voice so unconvincing. A Mills and Boon, rather light on romance? Another novel about writing itself? Certainly nothing would persuade one to read on except respect for McEwan's pervious achievements and the hope that surely at some point things will be turned round in a witty and satisfying manner. Then we will see why the writing is so feeble, the characterisation so banal, the plot so predictable... Or has McEwan exhausted a modest talent which was always more about literary tricks than substance? Is this anything but hackwork, relying upon a loyal following to pay the bills? It is with some desperation that one reaches the very edge of the cliff which must surely overlook a fall from grace, a smashing of the idol... Everything depends upon the final chapter.

If at the end, one feels a modicum of relief, a qualified respect for the craftsman, a shiver of admiration for the gamble, the trick, does it amount to much more? Repeating the "Atonement" procedure feels not so much risky as disappointing, the tediously long ride to the conjuror's surprise having been so much less engaging than in that enthralling and stylish novel. There are passages of pastiche, or self-mockery here, which only a master of the craft could have produced. But... but... shouldn't McEwan be exercising his considerable talents on a worthier project than a bit of silly showmanship? And aren't some of his reactionary social and political views becoming rather obtrusive?
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149 of 168 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Manipulation of Truth, 22 Aug 2012
By 
Susie B - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Hardcover)
It is the early seventies, and Serena Frome, the very attractive daughter of an Anglican bishop, is working towards a degree in mathematics at Cambridge, after being coerced into studying maths by her quietly ambitious mother, instead of studying English as she would have preferred. Serena, who has always been a compulsive and voracious reader, finds herself struggling with the standard of maths expected of her at Cambridge and looks elsewhere for her enjoyment, burying herself in her books and looking for romance. In her final year, she meets Tony Canning, her boyfriend's tutor, a much older, married man and they enter into a short, but passionate affair, part of which involves Tony grooming Serena for the intelligence service.

Serena manages to get through the screening process for the British Intelligence Service and starts working for MI5 in a very junior position; however she is keen to improve her prospects and when, through her knowledge of literature, she is assigned to an operation called 'Sweet Tooth' she is eager to prove her worth. Serena learns that MI5 have set up a cultural foundation to secretly support writers who speak out against communism and she is to act as a representative of the foundation. In her pose, Serena is to encourage a young writer, Tom Haley, to leave his post in academia and be supported by the foundation to enable him to write full time, but he must remain unaware that the funding is coming from MI5. Serena is initially successful in her mission, but when she becomes intellectually, physically and then emotionally involved with Haley, she finds leading a double life is much more difficult and less exciting than she had imagined and she also discovers that this is where the lines between truth and fiction become blurred. And this is true not just for Serena, but for the reader also.

This story is not so much about spying, but about deception, duplicity and the manipulation of truth. And, not least, it is about the power of literature. Peppered with references to life in the early 1970s, with terrorist threats, strikes, power cuts, three day weeks, mini skirts and sexual freedom, this cleverly written, multi-layered novel is full of stories within stories which will set you thinking, especially when you get to the twist at the end, where you might just feel like turning back to the first page and starting again.

4 Stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too Predictable, 2 Nov 2013
By 
M. Dowden (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Paperback)
Although this book has loads of good comments on the cover you do have to wonder if they were really written about this book, as there is no suspense; as such the story is clever, if we didn't have so many hints and 'signposts' throughout.

Taking in an operation by MI5 during the Seventies this does make an interesting read. We meet Serena Frome at the very outset, whilst she is still at Cambridge and before she joins MI5. As she becomes a participant in Operation Sweet Tooth though you do start to feel that there is a bit too much filler. Serena is told to check out writer Tom Haley, and we then get her thoughts on what his stories are about, etc. As the story progresses we read of bluffs and double bluffs, love, jealousy, and revenge, but when we come to the final outcome of this story it seems to fizzle out more than go with a bang.

Ian McEwan blurs the lines of fiction with this book making you ponder on what is real and what is fake, a construct that is very apt for the world of spies, but ultimately he lets the reader down as he gives way too many 'clues' throughout the story of what is happening, thus he doesn't leave room to pull any punches. At the end of this I felt that I had read a novella that had been filled out with extraneous material to make it into a novel; and also in a way cheated, as I was hoping for something that would make me think that I had misread clues and this wasn't what I thought would happen. I sometimes wonder when an author gets to a certain point of their career and are well established, if they perhaps get a bit lazy. This is a book that falls into that category, it could have been written with a bit more thought, hitting you and making you go 'Wow!', instead of doing what it does, and make you think 'Well that was obvious ages ago.' This is more of what I would call a beach read, enjoyable enough, not demanding, and an easy read.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Audacious, readable, ultimately shallow, but hugely enjoyable, 28 Aug 2012
By 
David (London, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Kindle Edition)
Opinions are strongly divided about McEwan. To some he can do no wrong. To others he appears too clever by half, knowing, and sly. I'm somewhere in between. No need to rehash the plot of Sweet Tooth - lots of reviews have done that. As someone who graduated in 1972, the same year as Serena Frome, the narrator and principal character, I enjoyed the 1970s setting, but was irritated that the opinions she expresses are not credibly those of a woman in her early 20s, but of McEwan forty years on. But then that is perhaps a clue to what is later revealed. The book is so readable that, even while I was having an internal dialogue with myself about whether this was a good book, I was chomping through the pages. I knew from other reviews that the ending was going to be a surprise. Inspite of that and after the full exercise of my active imagination, it still surprised me. Yes the book is shallow, self referential and up itself, but it is still hugely enjoyable. McEwan may be too clever by half, but he uses his sly, artful cleverness to entertain and surprise. What more can you expect from a work of fiction?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Almost compilation of short stories strung together as a novella --- but gripping!, 1 Nov 2013
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Paperback)
As usual Ian McEwan takes a rather off-beat view of life -- in this case the subterfuge engaged in during the Cold War spy games played out by various underhand cultural exchanges with the USSR.
The main theme is padded out by the insertion of a series of short stories which are woven into the fabric of the relationship between the chief characters but throughout the story there persists a feeling of sinister goings on within the mirky skulduggery of the Foreign Office.
Some things never change!
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Generic McEwan, 23 Feb 2013
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Hardcover)
Having read all McEwan's novels to date, I'm getting to the point where familiarity is perhaps breeding contempt. Let's be honest, you know what you're going to get with a McEwan story, and he hasn't really produced anything strikingly different since Amsterdam - the many fans of Atonement will no doubt disagree, however that left me cold too. Sweet Tooth features the usual unlikeable protagonists, a moribund cold-war storyline set against the dismal backdrop of early 1970s Britain, and a mildly surprising denouement; it's perfectly readable, but if you want something a little more fascinating or challenging, there are plenty of superior writers out there.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sweet Tooth, 17 Sep 2012
By 
S Riaz "S Riaz" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Kindle Edition)
From the very first we know that this is the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) who has been sent on a secret mission for the British security service, which ends in her being disgraced and her lover ruined... So it is with a feeling of slight dismay and misgiving that you delve into this novel about the daughter of an Anglican bishop, who has an affair with a tutor at Cambridge which leads her her being recruited for MI5. It is 1972 and Serena finds that what sounds an exciting career is little more than a glorified office job. However, in time she is involved in "Sweet Tooth", which ties her new job to her lifetime love of reading.

This is an interesting novel - more of a Harry Palmer than 007. Serena is very much a low ranking member of MI5 and her tasks involve more filing and cleaning safe houses than spying. She is a strange mixture of independence and reliance, but always realistically young and out of her depth. This is what makes the book so realistic, an odd mixture of spy novel and 1970's love story, with lots and lots of references to literature. There are sly digs at prestigious book awards, public readings and famous novelists and also many meanderings into short stories. Serena is always believable and likeable, young and idealistic and this is a really enjoyable story from a novelist who is at the height of his game and always in control of his plot and his characters.
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