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
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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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and clever,
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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Kindle Edition)
Sweet Tooth is the story of Serena Frome, a young lady living in 1970s Britain, who after a sheltered upbringing as the daughter of a Bishop, embarks on a Maths degree at Cambridge, where becoming involved in a short lived affair with one of the college tutors, is groomed by him to enter a career in MI5 . Serena is low in the ranks, however, and her life fairly mundane both in and outside of the office; that is until being an avid reader of fiction, she is assigned to a secret project, code name Sweet Tooth. M15 wishes to counter Communist propaganda by offering financial assistance to up and coming young writers who display in their work an anti-Communist slant, albeit of course covertly. Serena is to handle a promising young writer of short stories, Tom Haley. Matters get complicated, however, when Serena finds herself becoming romantically embroiled with Haley. How long can she keep up the double life, how thin is the line between truth and fiction, and in this murky world of intelligence, does Serena really know who she can trust?
This makes for an absorbing and intelligent read, with an abundance of ideas thrown at the reader, yet all elegantly and quite superbly crafted together. McEwan recreates the atmosphere of the early seventies exceedingly well, with its strikes, energy crises, political unrest, threat of terrorism and air of impending emergency. The shadowy corridors of MI5, the office politics and bureaucracy are also well described; and there is an undercurrent of tension, of not knowing who to trust that lurks throughout the novel.
However, Sweet Tooth is not the typical espionage story; if anything it is more to do with the process and culture of writing. There are stories within stories, as many of Tom Haley's fictional works are incorporated into the writing; both enjoyable in their own right, and raising questions of what motivates a writer's ideas, how much you can glean of an author from their work, and also what the reader expects or hopes for.
The writing itself is a joy to read, the central characters well created, and it is clear the author is having fun in telling the story, which has a dry sense of humour throughout. The twist at the end was absolutely fantastic, and throws a whole new light on the entire story; to the point where I was compelled to go back to the beginning and read it again, knowing what I now knew. Yet I didn't feel cheated as can sometimes be the case with suprise endings; rather it felt right, the entire novel making more sense in view of it.
Overall this is a very clever story, with interesting central ideas and themes that are well explored, characters you feel invested in, and a central romance that is involving. Well worth a read, and then a re-read!
3.0 out of 5 stars A writer writing about writing?,
Sweet Tooth is complicated, complex and sometimes difficult to take in. Part of the problem is the secret service operation, and I had to read some chapters twice to understand it. Once or twice, being particularly tired, I would need to read them again to remember what the book was about.
A Cambridge graduate, Serena, is recruited to join M15 and given a quest to approach a writer, ostensibly on behalf of an arts organisation, in order to give him support - a grant a similar - to enable his writing to be disseminated widely. He is required to be a person who would support middle of the road ideas and ideals for that reason his journalistic writing should be examined before providing a grant for a new novel. The idea is modelled on left-wing organisations who have had similar operations.
Serena - who writes in the first person - has already had affairs with other men, including a mentor who died of cancer, and having been bowled over by the writing, falls for the writer.
What I found interesting about the book, in the end, was that Ian McEwan seemed to be teasing the reader by saying this is what writing is all about.
There’s a selection of short stories, which the writer, Tom, creates and which protagonist, Serena, reads. These have nothing to do with the plot, and you, the reader, are obliged to read them too. I have to say that I felt rather irritated with these stories which for me, added nothing to the plot and were immediately forgotten. There is a mathematical problem to solve, too, and although like Tom, I couldn’t believe in the mathematical answer, I found it interesting. (Mathematicians who have studied ‘probabilities’ will recognise it.) Tom goes on to create a story around this particular maths problem, and on page 214 - 15, McEwan uses this to illustrate how writers create their stories or plots.
There is a twist at the end, which I am about to reveal, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know.
There is also the fact that he has chosen to write as a woman, and the question as to whether or not this works. He counters that by choosing in his twist at the end to make Tom the writer of the book, he having tried to imagine what Serena would be thinking. Interesting idea, maybe - or a bit of a cop out. Actually, I can’t help feeling that this twist is almost as bad as the ‘It was all a dream…’ which is frowned upon these days.
On the whole - a bit too clever by half.
I would probably give it 3.5 if I could.
4.0 out of 5 stars An immensely enjoyable read, with a fun twist that makes you rethink the whole story,
I like Ian McEwan - hardly surprising given that he's one of the most popular British authors writing today - though I'm still working my way through his back catalogue, so I can't compare this with everything else he's ever written.
It's an immensely enjoyable read though. Yes, there were bits I found clunky - especially the sex scenes - but this all fell into place when I finished the book, and the slight awkwardness of the writing was explained. I won't say more as I think it would be too much of a spoiler (and now I've read comments on some of the other reviews, I suggest that you stay away from them if you haven't read the book as they will spoil the ending for you).
Serena Frome is a speed reading maths graduate (though had she chosen her degree subject and not her mother it would have been English), who is recruited into MI5 following an affair with an older man already on the inside (the reasons for her recruitment become clear later on ...) She is assigned to project "Sweet Tooth", where the service funds up and coming authors - quite to what purpose I am not entirely clear, and a quick google search doesn't tell me whether this was a real (historical) project or not, but even if it wasn't I will allow the McGuffin - and recruits Tom Hardy, a writer she then proceeds to have an affair with and then fall in love with, much to the annoyance of her superior in the service. She's then stuck between telling Tom the truth and losing her job or continue lying to him and accepting that some day he will find out and their relationship will fall apart.
It's a nice insight into how things worked in the 70s era, with plenty of references to ongoing events that help to ground it in the timeline. It's especially telling how Serena is treated as a female in the service, where men in the same position are given much more leeway and responsibility - affairs between male handlers and female charges are commonplace and accepted, yet Serena is vilified for hers.
All in all, a great read, though perhaps not the best of his I've read so far - that honour so far goes to Enduring Love I think.
4.0 out of 5 stars An absolute delight,
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Kindle Edition)
After the personal reading debacle that was Solar, I had almost given up on McEwan, but he delivers such a sucker punch with Sweet Tooth, that in one stroke I am back to being a humble fanboy. I have read this book twice and listened to it in Juliet Stevenson's marvellous audio performance and its charm and intellect, heart and head, just fails to dull. In an accessible, pithy prose, it begins as a first person account of a Cambridge-graduated female mathematician who finds herself recruited for the British intelligence agency MI5. She is assigned a mission called Sweet Tooth where she has to recruit a young author for a fictitious British charitable arts council and hide the fact that he is being taken under the wing for his political stance and background. As she manoeuvres through the sexist world of the 70s workplace and finds herself yoked in one affair too many, you find yourself totally invested in this lone earnest-sounding rag-doll being dropped and slapped quietly but abruptly by lovers and friends always two steps ahead of her.
*possible spoiler* Much of the novel's charm for me came from McEwan's total inhabiting of this female voice. A self-effacing, nose-screwing snob who is endearingly engaged with her nation's everyday fate and yet revealingly clueless about her reality, the chiaroscuro of the whole flawed human endures the climactic rug-pulling by the author that reveals her as an impression. This multi-fangled impression in retrospect, this seeming version which is no more than a confident appropriation of hers by a male paramour-an author surrogate- separates McEwan by one degree from any criticism coming his way to "become" a woman, but for the reader, it's an unexpected haunting note that fails to die (Who was she?, Was she really like this?) *spoiler ends*. Unlike many detractors, I felt the bang of the final chapter fittingly pares down both the melodrama of the affairs and the straight faced revisionist account-of-the-times behind-closed-doors a la Le Carre. I am more comfortable with this winking and the intellectual souffle that is baked just right.
Amidst this maze of smokes and mirrors befittingly set in the corridors of British intelligence of the Cold War years, the scope of a country's intelligence agency's perniciousness in driving the politics and opinions of the engaged literati and news aficionados among the literate masses and those in power has a timeless relevance: it has had historical touchpoints in the 20th century fascist and communist heydays, drives much of the cultural amnesia in communist footholds and dictatorships in atleast half the world today and in the so-called "liberated" Western world today the said intelligence agencies can be replaced with contemporary multi-million media conglomerates with boards filled with editors, network heads and journalists who double up as communications directors and other facetious advisory posts in governments which themselves are lobbied by firms and global companies with only profiteering on agenda, and you have the picture. To see the current overloaded information nexus in its more elemental form when there was a smidgen of authority attached to a much smaller fourth estate is a delight and a nice reminder that one must not read without one's radar for subtexts switched off. We are all driven by agendas, those in power more so: to be aware of where people come from and what drives them is the key to decoding all of the "civilised" world.
Talking of subtexts in written material, there is a beautiful nuance of this girl huddled up in her bedsit trying to work out the nature of the author she hasn't met from his short stories. There is another superb little subplot where her writing lover gets to construct a little story derived from their interaction: however imagined, however fanciful, however separated from happening-reality-of-this-novel's-world, these are welcome tributes to the joys and disappointments of creating fiction, reading it, assessing its merits and filling it with people you imagine they are.
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of the Unexpected,
Serena Frome, a beautiful literature-loving mathematics graduate from Cambridge, is recruited to work for the UK Security Service MI5 by Professor Tony Canning, with whom she had an idyllic summer love affair in 1972. She starts her work in a country beset by industrial strife, economic dislocation and in the midst of the Cold War. Serena is shocked to discover that Tony had previously supplied documents to the USSR and had recently died as a pariah. She then becomes is involved in a project, known as Sweet Tooth, to fund British authors to write articles and books critical of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc. In this way, she meets and falls for Tom Haley, an upcoming writer who seems to be closely based upon Ian McEwan himself. When Haley’s work is nominated for a literary prize, matters start to get difficult for Serena as he has no knowledge of her role in MI5, thinking that she represents the charitable foundation that provides the funding to encourage emerging writers.
As one would expect from the talents of the author, this is a consummately well-written story, engaging and authentically located in the conflict-ridden England that seemed to be spiralling towards a terminal decline in the early 1970s. There is a neat and unexpected twist at the end that challenges the reader’s perspective on the foregoing narrative. An excellent book.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sweet Nothings,
McEwan's story centres on a Cambridge graduate with a love of literature joining MI5 during the 70's, sent on a low level mission, ends up in love with the subject.
I promise not to spoil the "plot" but I guarantee anyone reading the five star reviews and then this that the "twist" isn't that interesting.
He loses two stars for three reasons:
1. Serena is more of a fantasy than a product of McEwan's imagination. The Rector's daughter, sexually rabid, great at maths, loves books, wears pretty things, exudes beauty, and falls in love with old fellas and guys with big ears and scruffy pubic hair. He handles nothing about this repressed yet wayward female with any form of grace or reality. Like scenes from A Child in Time, McEwan proves once again his idea of the female construct is nothing more than that. Its not realistic and its not believable. The only believable part of the love story here was in fact her liaison with Tony - but then, what aging old guy wouldn't hold up a pretty female for a summer of sex?
2. The abrupt left-wing political rants jerked into the plot line in the guise of lectures to staff was both preachy and boring. McEwan demonstrates quite clearly his knowledge in this book about the commercial cutthroat nature of the publishing business. For profit. One he's handsomely benefited from over the years. Again this form of Atonement is both unsettling and quite frankly dishonest. Without blundering the "plot" his anti-hero will benefit significantly from this also, another lame attempt by McEwan to give his happy-clappy views on anti-establishment some weight. Please.
3. Finally, I can't argue that McEwan's formulaic literary prose delivery keeps the pages turning. As I've posted in other reviews here, can I have a story please, that's also well told?
Trying to indulge a fantasy, send out a political message, please editors and critics is always going to be contrived and ugly.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Can do better,
I have one word to describe this book - shallow. Shallow characters, I couldn't feel any emotion for the main character,it didn't matter to me what happened to her. Shallow story line. Am I supposed to believe that this is the way MI5 recruit their agents and then send them out on a mission, albeit a relatively harmless one, with no traing whatsoever, just a few words of advice. As for the so called twist at the end, highly improbable.
I wasn't sure if I was reading ''The sexual adventures of the bishop's daughter'' or ''Serena's Secret Service - a farce''
And where have I read the story about falling in love with a window dresser's dummy? Another short story by a different writer but I can't remember who.
4.0 out of 5 stars As Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors, I was looking forward to reading his ...,
As Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors, I was looking forward to reading his novel. And I am glad to say that I wasn’t disappointed. Sweet Tooth presents an enjoyable reading, taking readers back to the 1970s which for me was the decade I can remember at least some fragmentary events from. In my life it was the period when one began to be more perceptive of and sensitive to other things than children’s games. When combined with my present amount of life experience, the novel’s events bring also the possibility to revive and compare some of the memories. Moreover, Serena, as the central character is the representation of young women who (not just then) had to struggle hard for being recognized, thus posing the question: How much has changed since then? McEwan is dealing with serious topics Britain (and the world) was facing in the 1970s and is facing even today but the way he treats them makes one smile, even laugh much too often (perhaps not always in accord with the author’s intention). However, McEwan’s method could thus prove the best one for preventing us from getting too depressed by what’s going on around us.
31 of 38 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully- written Nonsense,
I am an avid fan of McEwan but I feel that like many of his generation - Banks and Swift, for example - he is struggling to come up with plotlines that make the reader care about the outcome. When I started this book I felt the familiar awe at the man's superlative craftsmanship. I also give him huge credit for continually coming up with totally new situations and scenarios around which to write his novels - he never falls into the trap of being formulaic. However, the novel itself, sadly, is bit of a dog's breakfast. As one who remembers the period well, I was quite fascinated to see him tackle this period of our history when the left wing of politics seemed to flirt a little too closely with the Communists and where otherwise sane people were promoting Eastern Europe as a "Worker's Paradise". The basic premise of a front organisation for MI5 promoting artists who might counter the silly pro-Soviet propaganda of the time seems potty now but I don't think it was implausible then. Perhaps the portrayal of a misogynistic class-ridden MI5 is accurate too.
Sarah Froome, apart from being a laughably implausible spy, is a curiously empty character who seemingly thinks only of her last bonk. By the end I still didn't care about her. It's that kind of book. At one point McEwan ties himself in linguistic knots trying to explain some obscure quirk of mathematical probability and which, like his Tom Haley, he seems to have only half-grasped after a conversation in a pub. What on earth was Ian M thinking of? Tom Haley goes with bewildering speed from obscure university lecturer to award-winning novelist, out-penning such literary pigmies as Martin Amis. What a load of horse manure! Still, at least I could identify a little with him.
Then there's the much talked-about "twist". Well, my apologies to those who see it that way, but I found it absurd and I think McEwan just didn't know how else to finish the novel off. I was going to give this novel 3 stars You know, when I think about it, this was a heap of dross really - albeit classy dross.
I think Ian is going backwards as a novellist. He needs to take a long hard look at his plot lines and be honest with himself about where the line between improbability and absurdity lies. Above all, he needs to create characters with some warmth that we can care about.
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Expectations dashed,
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I set off reading this book with high hopes. The first fifty pages were great, painting a portrait of a young woman growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then it seemed to lose momentum; the affair with Tony Canning was a big stretch and then the idea of working in MI5 encouraging new non-lefty fiction was just too much for me. A writer writing about writing can get a bit insular and narrow and the plot slowed right up.
Nothing wrong with the characters - primarily the protagonist Serena Frome, her lover Tom Haley, Greatorex and Shirley - and some of the descriptions were really good; however, there was something lacking in the 1972 ambiance - lots on politics and writing but nothing on music or fashion which were very important.
The ending was clever, but felt like trickery which just added to the non credible plot. I only gave 4 stars because of the quality of the writing.
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Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan