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Sweet Tooth
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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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on 29 September 2016
Oh Ian McEwan, the big tease – master of the great turnaround, the twist that has his readers jumping from their seats, hurling the book across the room in amazement. A twist you instinctively know must be coming, but which nevertheless fails to shock. You think you’ll see it before it hits, and then at the very last moment, McEwan pulls the rug out from under your feet.

But it’s not the twisty-turny aspect of McEwan’s narratives which gives them their sap. It’s rather the handle he has on his characters’ moral tuning: the way he gradually raises the emotional temperature until the story is, to overcook a metaphor, on the boil. As Serena Frome agonises over her role in Sweet Tooth, an MI5 operation aimed at wringing political purchase from cultural endeavour, so does the reader.

Posing as the representative of a foundation which supports the work of young artists, Serena offers young novelist Tom Haley a stipendium which will enable him to give up his work as an academic and focus purely on writing his first novel. The rightist bent of Haley’s short stories is considered another potential weapon in the cultural war against communist propaganda. And the fact that Serena then falls in love with her mark prevents her from warning him of the potential trap into which he is about to fall as a dupe of the secret service.

One suspects that McEwan also had a lot of fun while writing this book, with his knowing references to the ‘up and coming’ authors of the 1970s, like Martin Amis, or the ‘new-fangled’ Booker prize. But at its heart, this is a novel which has very serious things to say about artistic integrity and the precarious relationship between politics and literature. And fundamentally, it’s a love story, and a beautiful one at that. Reading Sweet Tooth was yet another reminder of just how adept McEwan is at calibrating the vagaries of the human heart.
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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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on 1 January 2018
At first I couldn't understand why this was so badly written. With its MI5 setting, and its apparent belief that you only have to write about clothes to produce a convincing female voice, it reminded me of William Boyd's Restless (a MUCH overrated book). Then, of course, I reached the end.

Spoiler alert -- McEwan has attempted to pull the same trick twice. But whereas at the end of Atonement I felt betrayed, this time I felt just exceeding irritation. McEwan comes across as smug, conceited, and too clever by half -- and that's just his alter ego in the book. Don't get me started on his arrogance as a writer in submitting this for publication.
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on 13 January 2015
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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on 23 September 2013
One of the reasons I was drawn to reading this book is that it is set in Brighton and I'll be popping down there again in a few weeks. Also, looking back over my reviews it would appear I'm a bit of a fan of McEwan's work. So is Sweet Tooth a tasty treat or a painful cavity? As soon as I started reading the story of the ups and downs of Serena Frome, the girl who "carried everything without complaint", I could hear the soundtrack to Georgy Girl in my head.

The golden rule is to always have a Plan B, and without this it would have been a rather sad little novel. For all the protagonist's brains and beauty there is something amiss. At Cambridge she learns too swiftly that she's not clever enough. There are echoes of other Oxbridge novels here. I found the idea of a physical relationship between gorgeous Serena and the history prof rather unpalatable, whilst at the same time understanding the irony: Serena no more chose this path any more than she chose to work for MI5. There is something of a Greek tragedy where the young heroine is pushed on to the stage to deliver lines she hasn't learnt. It's all rather "crinkly and loud" and depressing. As soon as a safe house is named a safe house it's a dangerous place to be.

But it's not all frothless tragedy: Serena mighty be a ditsy near-genius, but we persevere, dear reader, because we know there's something rather The-Spy-Who-Came-In-From-The-Cold about it all. Even if it means we have to plough through several short stories to get there. The one about the laws of probability pertaining to adultery is a howler. But does it actually do anything for the plot? Maybe this is a code?

The story of how a girl inhabits the different compartments of her life all along the theme to Georgy Girl. Can't wait for the movie to be released!
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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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on 17 July 2013
Like all good spy stories, there is much in `Sweet Tooth' that isn't as it first seems. The simple sentences of Selena Frome, the novel's first person narrator, are immediately arresting. However, there is shortly another `voice'. This is T. H. [Tom] Haley, a budding writer of fiction whom MI5, through Selena, cultivates in Operation Sweet Tooth. As a writer, it is apposite that we hear Tom's voice through extracts from his short stories and first novel and a lengthy letter to Selena that constitutes the final chapter of McEwan's own novel. Haley's is a voice that is sometimes very similar to Selena's but their dialectics can differ radically. Without giving away McEwan's wonderful ending, suffice to say that Haley's 20 page letter is revelatory. Its contents turn the elements of the novel on their head.

`Sweet Tooth' is a spy story that vividly evokes a Britain at the end of the Heath government with industrial unrest, new universities, male chauvinism and the IRA. It is also a romance, steamy with passionate sex suffused by the inevitable subsequent deceits, moral dilemmas and betrayals. All this is reminiscent of McEwan's earlier `The Innocent' with its brilliant intertwining of espionage, passion and a sense of `place' and `time'. A theme specific to `Sweet Tooth' is where authors find inspiration and how a creative spark can become a flame. This is fascinating stuff. Not only does McEwan turn all these elements on their head, he does it wonderfully well - simply, satisfyingly and cleverly.

Tom tells Selena that his `favourite spy story' is `Operation Mincemeat'. This involved a ruse whereby British Intelligence misdirected Hitler about the allied invasion of southern Europe. The original idea came from an episode in a novel that was spotted by the young Ian Fleming. Haley believes that `Mincemeat succeeded because invention, the imagination, drove the intelligence. Sweet Tooth ...reversed the process and failed because intelligence tried to interfere with invention'. Haley points out that in `1943. The struggle was starker and more consequential than it is now'. Tom's comment is true for `The Innocent' set in a divided Berlin. `Sweet Tooth' is clever but it hasn't that `darkness' and `consequence' of McEwan's earlier novel. `Sweet Tooth' is Lemon Soufflé; `The Innocent' is Black Forrest Gateaux.

Stewart Robertson
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on 21 July 2013
Sweet Tooth takes us into the sleezy world of MI5 in the 1970s. Britain was in the throes of the three day week. The miners were on strike (they wanted a 35% pay rise!). PMs Ted Heath and Harold Wilson seemed interchangeable, grey old men who knew nothing of the real world. The Cold War was becoming tedious, the new war was being fought in Ulster, and it was coming to the streets of Britain's cities.

I was very young then, but I remember enough to be able to look back on this world as if it was another place. Grey, black, dark, depressing, is how it is in my mind, and how it is portrayed in this book. Our 'heroine' is Serena Frome, an apparently naïve, ambitious, pretty girl, who gets embroiled in an operation to fund writers (without their knowledge) to promote anti-communist views in their literature and so to do their bit, unwittingly, to preserve the values of the Old Guard, regardless of which Government happen to be in office. McEwan's list of reading at the end of the book shows that this is no invention, something as preposterous really did happen. Of course, Serena falls in love with her writer, and that gives her a bit a problem because how can you build a future when you can't tell your lover the truth about yourself, when in a sense, all that he knows of you is built on a lie, and that in addition, you're compromising his artistic integrity?

That's the story. What the book is about is a bit more difficult. Politics and parallels, this being McEwan, obviously. Deception - again, obviously, this is Ian McEwan, it's what he does. The twists and turns that we'll force our mind to take in order to make the world into the shape we want it to be, regardless of the fact that it's really another shape altogether, and that the person who's looking at it with us sees it in yet another form. It's about love, but McEwan's type of love, which is definitely not the romantic sort. It is romantic though, and there's even a romantic novelist playing a shady role in there too, though ultimately the romance is shown to be just as much window-dressing, deception, acting, as the entire relationship.

And of course, this being McEwan, all is absolutely not what it seems. I won't spoil it, but anyone who's read his books before would quite rightly be suspicious from the start. I was, though I didn't guess until close to the end. And that was my problem with the book.

That it's beautifully written goes without saying. That it's funny, dark, witty, of course - what I'd expect from one of my favourite authors. It's a compelling story. It draws you into the world and you keep turning the pages. I never quite believed in the female narrative, but there's a reason for that. I didn't like Serena much, but you weren't supposed to. I think the only likeable character was Shirley Shilling, the romantic novelist, and I'm not saying that to empathise, and even she, I was deeply suspicious of - again, I suspect I was meant to be. Nothing was as it seemed. That's the point of the book I think, and that's kind of what I didn't like about it (I mean the ending, not the book). Reading about deceit is one thing, being deceived is another. Like Atonement, I was left feeling cheated.

But it won't stop me coming back for more.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 July 2015
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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