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85 of 90 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 Sept. 2012 by John Tierney

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57 of 60 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 TWBlount


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57 of 60 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 
TWBlount (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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85 of 90 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clever, 22 Sept. 2012
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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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7 of 7 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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5 of 5 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 Not great McEwan - but an enjoyable, playful story., 13 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Kindle Edition)
Ian McEwan's novel 'Sweet Tooth' is set in London in the early 1970s at a time when our security services are launching a programme to covertly finance young writers who could be useful to the government's ideological struggle against communism.

It follows its young protagonist Serena Frome through her recruitment by MI5 after her graduation from Cambridge. The programme in which she is asked to work is codenamed 'Sweet Tooth' and it seems Serena has been headhunted for her wide knowledge of modern fiction and ability to speed-read novels. But there may have been other, more sinister reasons behind her recruitment. She is tasked with vetting and recruiting writer Thomas Haley, an exciting new talent in the literary field, but matters start to get complicated when she finds herself romantically drawn to her target.

The 1970s setting of this story was a turbulent period in Great Britain, with industrial strikes and an energy crisis, the Northern Ireland 'Troubles' crossing over to the English mainland, the '3 Day Week' and shifts of power between political left and right. Paranoia over the Cold War between West and East spread to the arts and culture as opposing regimes sought to win over the minds of the young intelligentsia. McEwan sketches in these period details as a background to his story, and to someone like me - who lived in London as a student in the early 1970s - they come across as accurate, even nostalgic at times, as when he describes the run-down bedsits of London suburbs in which Serena stays.

However, I found the style of writing here - apparently a first person account written by Serena Frome - comes across as something like a pastiche of chick-lit, which I took to be McEwan's attempt to get inside the head of his twenty-something female protagonist - although we are led to believe this is the mature Serena writing now (the novel was published in 2012) about her time in MI5. All is not what it seems ...

It was not long after the introduction of the Thomas Haley character that I started to notice a number of autobiographical elements in McEwan's story. Haley - like McEwan - studied at the University of Sussex, rather lowbrow in comparison to Ms Frome and her Oxbridge set, and he writes rather bizarre stories that reminded me of McEwan's early collection in 'In Between the Sheets' (1978). Haley has written a novel that wins a prestigious literary prize, mirroring McEwan's own achievement when he won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976. And then in 'Sweet Tooth' McEwan starts introducing a number of real life characters as Haley's acquaintances who just happen to be figures from McEwan's own literary circle.

McEwan name-drops a number of the literary figures of the time, and a lot of other writers of whom he approves, and - if I were to gain nothing else from this work - I am indebted to the author for introducing me here to the poems of Edward Thomas, a poet of the Great War who somehow had passed me by. His poem 'Adlestrop' features in this novel.

As the story develops, we can start to see the author's hand at play as through his avatar Haley he starts to play with our perceptions. The theme of the story appears to be the relationship between artistic integrity and government propaganda. However, the novel seeks to on work on several different levels, and I was somewhat disappointed to find McEwan dropping the political context and not following through many of the period threads that he introduced earlier in the story. It turns out that this is a work of meta-fiction, a novel about the creation of fiction, exploring how the writer takes characters and experiences from real life and combines and re-shapes them into a work of fiction.

McEwan ends the book with a piece of sleight of hand that is meant to be a surprising twist, the final distortion of our understanding of what we have been reading, although I suspect that many readers will see it coming. It would be wrong if I said I did not enjoy reading 'Sweet Tooth' and if it had been penned by any other writer I would probably be kinder towards it. It is an entertaining read, playful and inoffensive. But I expect a lot more from Ian McEwan, and therefore it disappoints.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, although of some academic interest, 18 Feb. 2014
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Hardcover)
For a writer of whom the most oft-heard criticism is that he can't write women it would seem a bold strategy to take on a novel where the protagonist is a woman apparently looking back after forty years on her time in the service of MI5 in the early seventies. However, all is not what it appears and it transpires McEwan is giving himself a get out of gaol free card in the form of the final revelation that the narrator is not the person we assumed. So, that's fine then. Serena comes across as shallow and unbelievable not because McEwan can't write women but because she is not the one writing the apparent memoir. On the way, McEwan makes a passing jibe at those who make the other oft-heard criticism of him; that he can't write endings either. As a serial McEwan buyer and reader I am quite happy to accept this criticism. One generally gets 300 pages of good writing for one's money and the final disappointing five or six pages seldom make me think the book unworth the read (Atonement's appalling betrayal of the reader being an exception). But the problem with Sweet Tooth isn't the ending - although that doesn't really work. It's more that McEwan seems to have spent too much time working out how to be clever with the interplay between text and textuality and not enough time creating characters we can work up enough emotional investment to care about. I was engaged enough to ponder whether Haley was who he appeared to be, and even whether Canning had really died, but I was also aware that these were academic considerations and that the plot was as thin as a watery soup. The obsession with authors writing about authors is annoying. Here it borders on the embarrassing. As a McEwan fan I really found myself wishing he hadn't bothered to go into this territory. He even mentions the Booker twice! Horrible. Please don't even do this again, Ian. I'll keep buying McEwan because Amsterdam and Enduring Love were fine books, but I won't be re-reading Sweet Tooth.
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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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intelligence Lit, 20 Aug. 2013
By 
Robert Cordner (Northern Ireland, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Paperback)
There are no shortage of novels about spies, their rivals and enemies, and all the paraphernalia of intelligence agencies. It is more rare, however, for spy fiction to receive a literary treatment. John Banville's The Untouchable set the bar high, and although Ian McEwan's latest novel does not quite attain the same success, it is nevertheless to be welcomed. Perhaps part of the reason for the difference in the two novels is that McEwan's main character is very young, and an attractive woman. It is probably easier to wring a satisfying story from a cynical old fashioned liberal, but McEwan does well to do so from a Oxbridge graduate who takes her patriotism for granted. There are no long-winded speeches about the political situation, rather, McEwan takes a more subtle approach by making us aware of her thoughts and attitudes in passing remarks. He draws on the pervasive sense of British decline, from without and within, that is said to have blighted the 1970s. This examination of an unthinking civil servant can compromise the reader, who might easily find themselves caught out by assumptions deeply embedded in cultural and political attitudes to the fallout from the 1960s. McEwan does not dwell on background crises, but allows them to appear in and out of focus, the Cold War, of course, but also Northern Ireland, and the generational conflict within the Service between old colonial hands and the younger cold warriors. Beyond this, Sweet Tooth is a rather conventional yet wonderfully written tale of love, jealousy, rivalry, moral compromise, and a woman struggling with a career in the early 1970s.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Writers Writing, Readers Reading, 11 Sept. 2012
By 
prisrob "pris," (New England USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Hardcover)
Ian McEwan has given us a novel within a novel within another and soi on. So many layers and so many stories. Ian McEwan has for me, become one of those authors that you jump to read. This is a superb novel that knocks us for a loop.

Serena Frome (Plume), is a lovely young blonde thing in the 1970's. She is imbibed with intelligence and good looks. Off she goes to Cambridge for a third in Math. Her real love is reading and literature, but it is her duty as her mother tells her to show men that a woman is just as good as any man. Serena has a couple of loves at Cambridge and then falls for an older professor who leads her into the lair of MI-5, Intelligence and such. The affair ends, but Serena Finds a menial starter job at MI-5. Not a thrilling life, but she gets by. A male friend at the shop suggests she might be the person for the new covet project 'Sweet Tooth'. This is MI5's way of covertly recruiting writers and journalists. But the writer must never know where the money is coming from. The hope is that the writer will Have designs on writing for the community in the east. As you might guess an affair occurs, but that is when our fun starts.
No way will you be prepared for what occurs next. This is the meat of the novel and this is where McEwan is so superb! The first and the last chapters, that is all you need to know. The in-between is terrific, but..

Highly Recommended. prisrob 09-11-12
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