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3.7 out of 5 stars
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3.7 out of 5 stars
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This is one of those books that readers may find either clever - or just too clever-clever: I'm in the latter category. McEwan is on familiar territory as he makes broad comparisons between fiction and politics, the way ideological positions are all about narrative, about creating a story. Here he offers a view of MI5 in the mid-1970s taking on a project to fund anti-communist writers, including a novelist, to covertly infiltrate cultural consciousness with the governmental/security services' view.

This is not a new topic for fiction: Ellen Feldman's The Unwitting, for example, deals with precisely the same idea only set in New York with the CIA providing the cash. Where McEwan seems to lose his way, though, is in the rambling first person narrative of Serena as she bumbles her way speedreading through world literature, while falling into bed with a series of mostly older, unattractive men, and incidentally running Project Sweet Tooth on the side.

There is ultimately a reason for the stilted, artificial, contrived nature of Serena's storytelling but it's a tricky one to pull off and I didn't think it worked here. One, it's been almost used before by McEwan himself in another book, and two, it's just so self-consciously metaliterary that it's almost a pastiche of postmodern fiction.

In amongst all the literary game-playing, though, I did enjoy the evocation of the 1970s, especially the excursions into British interventions in Northern Ireland. So altogether this is a bit of a potpourri of a novel with lots of stuff mixed up together. Ultimately the voice we hear is always McEwan's own voice (the iambic rhythm of a train's wheels, for example) - self-conscious to the last.
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on 18 February 2014
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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VINE VOICEon 17 October 2013
This novel tells the story of Serena - a bright, fairly ambitious maths graduate with a lifelong love of literature - who is recruited via her much older lover to work for MI5. After a short time, she is asked to take a new anti-communist author, Tom, under her wing, under the pretence of giving him the sponsorship of an arts foundation. The two fall in love, and a passionate relationship results. But of course, there is a big secret between them: Tom doesn't really know what/who Serena is, and if she tells him, she risks losing both him and her career.

For me, this novel fails on several levels. Fistly (and I'm sure this is my fault) I didn't really understand why MI5 would take such an interest in fiction. Other reviewers don't seem to have had this problem, so it seems I'm on my own here. Then I found it hard to sympathise with any of the characters, and the novel seems rather fragemented. Every so often, the flow seems to cease (in particular, where the lengthy explanations of the "three boxes" theory arises; too complicated to go into here). Of course, as ever, McEwan's writing is beautiful, flowing effortlessly, but great prose is not enough. As for the "twist", I found this weak and unsurprising as it leads to the novel's rather laborious conclusion.

In summary, a big disappointment. I loved Saturday and Atonement, and was hoping for a much more absorbing read.
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Nominally, this is an espionage novel tracing the career of narrator Serena Frome who joins - a rather chauvinistic - MI5 from university in the 1970s. It is far more, however, a novel about love, literature and the characters, even if there is a classic thriller type twist waiting for the reader at the end. Frome ends up running an agent who has been talented spotted as an author able to produce helpful propaganda and who, in his depiction as a young author, looks rather like a young Ian McEwan himself. Indeed McEwan has called the novel "a muted and distorted autobiography", although presumably the tale of how the author is recruited as an agent and then things start to go wrong is all fiction.

All very enjoyable.
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on 15 July 2013
Set in the early seventies, this is not a conventional spy story, since the operation is so low low-key, and as the narrator, Serena Frome, says in the opening paragraph, it failed and ruined her lover in the process. The interesting part is how and this is revealed with a flawless sense of pace. The themes are love, literature, deception and attitudes to women at that time but they don't get in the way of a good story. Serena hurtles through life, not always likeable, but always fascinating in her passion for literature and men in equal measure. She says she likes straightforward storytelling, and this book seems to deliver that, but there is a twist at the end that perhaps she wouldn't like, but made sense to me.
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on 23 July 2017
A fascinating read for those of us who just about remember the wonderful world of the early 1970s. I loved the twist in the final chapter giving us a different perspective. One of McEwan's best novels.
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on 18 July 2017
Perfect, really good.
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on 18 May 2015
Too contrived and not Ian McEwan's usual high standard
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on 24 September 2014
Could not put it down. Ian McEwan can write a terrific story
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on 28 April 2017
Great story.
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