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Sweet Tooth

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In this stunning new novel, Ian McEwan's first female protagonist since Atonement is about to learn that espionage is the ultimate seduction.

Cambridge student Serena Frome's beauty and intelligence make her the ideal recruit for MI5. The year is 1972. The Cold War is far from over. England's legendary intelligence agency is determined to manipulate the cultural conversation by funding writers whose politics align with those of the government. The operation is code named "Sweet Tooth."

Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is the perfect candidate to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer named Tom Haley. At first, she loves his stories. Then she begins to love the man. How long can she conceal her undercover life? To answer that question, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage: trust no one.

Once again, Ian McEwan's mastery dazzles us in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal and intrigue, love and the invented self.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2012

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About the author

Ian McEwan

144 books15.1k followers
Ian McEwan studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970 and later received his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia.

McEwan's works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. He won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and the Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; and Germany's Shakespeare Prize in 1999. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction numerous times, winning the award for Amsterdam in 1998. His novel Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award (2003), Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). He was awarded a CBE in 2000. In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Saturday and his novel On Chesil Beach was named Galaxy Book of the Year at the 2008 British Book Awards where McEwan was also named Reader's Digest Author of the Year.

McEwan lives in London.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,232 reviews
388 reviews34 followers
March 16, 2016
My dearest Tom,

Upon reading your letter, my first impulse was to burn the accompanying package, walk away, and be done with us forever. But, as you seem to have uncannily predicted, I've now spent a couple of days and nights in your flat, devouring your manuscript and sleeping in between the sheets, nicely ironed. Given that you were in Paris and out of reach, there was no possibility of my responding to you immediately, so I had the luxury of abandoning myself to an extended period of reflection. And to my surprise, my initial response underwent a complete turnabout. You are already finished with MI5, and I am about to be. In an odd and unexpected way, our deceptions -- now stripped bare -- have made it possible for us to be completely honest with one another, me for the very first time. It seems that there could hardly be a better foundation for a new beginning, especially given that our mutual attraction remains entirely intact.

As for the proposed jointly-authored "novel" (at least that’s how I interpreted your letter's penultimate sentence), I emphatically don't want any future of ours to be haunted by such a book, especially not one that bears either of our names as an author. At the same time, the manuscript is positively brilliant, most definitely not something to be consigned to the flames. I was, of course the author of my actions, but the written product is yours, not mine. Your ability to inhabit my mental space is simultaneously frightening and comforting. Even those parts of the manuscript that your letter describes as necessary inventions have the ring of complete verisimilitude. There are no lacunae that require filling in by me. What then shall become of this incredible labour of love?

Here is my suggestion. Had you not enlisted (unwittingly) in the Sweet Tooth project, its funding would most likely have gone to another highly promising but unknown writer named Ian McEwan. At this point, Sweet Tooth is obviously moribund if not quite yet deceased, but Ian is young and very much alive. Although some of his manuscripts have garnered a lot of favourable attention within the small group through which they been circulating, he has not yet managed to get any of his pieces into print. I suspect that this unfortunate state of affairs may reflect Ian’s choice of material; his characters tend to be deranged, and his plots often veer toward the macabre. So it's understandable that no publisher has been willing to take a chance on him. However, if he were to produce a mainstream novel that met with a good critical reception, he would then be positioned to place his other work before the large audience that he richly deserves. Your manuscript fits that condition perfectly, so why not make a gift of it to Ian? Doing so could prove to be both our salvation and his.

Ian and I have never actually met, but since we share a mutual acquaintance, an introduction of the two of you could easily be arranged. Given Ian’s formidable talent, he would surely be able to conjure up whatever alterations are necessary to make your work appear to be his own, and I have strong reasons to believe that he would both endorse and enjoy the subterfuge. Moreover, with the influence that you have acquired upon receiving the Austen, you could represent yourself to your own publisher as Ian's agent, and you would most certainly not be turned down. Our truth could become Ian's fiction; he might even win the Booker (and in a deliciously tangential way, so then would you). Another secret, yes, but this time we would be in on it together from the very start. And should the altered manuscript's plot be deemed too close to whatever facts remain publicly undisclosed about Sweet Tooth, its publication could be delayed until a more propitious moment arrived. Even if several decades were to elapse, the novel could still benefit Ian significantly; in that case, rather than launching his career, it might instead serve as a capstone piece (assuming that by then his other writing had somehow found an alternative route to recognition). With luck, you and I might even still be around to celebrate that outcome.

So, now there appear to be multiple proposals sitting here on your kitchen table, proposals concerned with both life and art. At this point I am unsure whether those two subjects can be separated at all. But that's something to discuss when you come to London.

With great anticipation,


P.S. I would attach only one condition to the release of your/Ian's novel. Should it ever find its way into the hands of an American publisher, there must be a contractual insistence that the original language remain unaltered. American copy-editors are berks; they'll change "favour" to "favor" and "programme" to "program", while giving a pass to Cockney slang and idiosyncratic British idioms. Authors, whoever they are, should demand that their international readership not be patronised.
Profile Image for Elaine.
777 reviews360 followers
December 14, 2012
What a disappointment -- the vivid passions that animate Atonement (even its "trick", which in retrospect seems too similar) have become cramped cleverness, just as, perhaps, the heroic World War II London of Atonement becomes the gray decline of the early 70s London of Sweet Tooth. To sum it up, I was very disappointed. There is a lot of erudition on show here -- about the Cold War, about the history of British intelligence, and especially, always, about books and literature. But to what end? Even when you know exactly how the fix is in, and every belief you might still have in reading and narrative has been soundly mocked (just as its resolutely atheist dedicee, Chris Hitchens, might have mocked belief in other realms), your first reaction is not a salute to the wry mindgames McEwan is playing, or to the (still virtually unmatched) writerly artistry and skill with which he has brought you there, but a yawn, a "really?", a sigh of disappointment that all that adroit artistry has been deployed in much ado about nothing.

At the end of the day, this is not a "spy novel" at all (the spy part is so flimsy it almost can't bear the weight it's meant to carry -- you need to suspend disbelief (and even on McEwen's terms, it's important that you credit her work a little bit) to see what Serena's doing as undercover/spying/intelligence work/duplicitous at all). instead, it's a love story, but not a romantic one, for the simple reason that Serena isn't really very interesting. We learned at the end a little bit about why we see her the way we do, but as portrayed she isn't really any good at anything except being beautiful and getting very involved with various men (most of whom she meets in professional settings). She's a math major who is terrible at her math studies, she's a passionate reader who likes pulp fiction and women writers (really - McEwan throws in that she likes Drabble and Byatt in addition to romance novels - quite a dig given that she's such a bad reader), eschewing the intellectuals of the day (Gaddis, Borges) because she only likes books that reflect real life back to her. In short, she's a terrible reader, and that's much of the point of the book -- she misreads every situation she's in -- always thinking things are going on that aren't and missing what is actually going on. She intentionally(?) screws up her job which she has no aptitude for by developing not one but two on the job romantic entanglements. She's a pretty bad friend, an unempathetic sister and a fairly absent daughter. But she's super hot -- we're given to understand. All these traits are in service of McEwan's master plan -- but they don't make it much fun to spend 300-odd pages with her as our ostensible guide -- she's kind of a snooze.

As for the eventual hero of the piece, the most fun McEwan has all book is making up short stories for our fictional writer to have written -- twist endings and moral deviance -- lots of "clues" for the attentive reader (unlike Serena)to dig into. While is is fun in doses, the recaps and quotes of his writing drag after a bit.

In short, by the time it all ends, with more of a small firecracker than a big bang, you are mostly relieved to be finished.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books768 followers
December 11, 2012
I've read all of McEwan's short stories and novels, and it's only now that I can see why his endings bother some readers (including readers like his main character, Serena). And if you are a different, and certain, kind of reader (one unlike Serena) you will have criticisms of his narratorial voice, but at the end, McEwan has an answer for every single one of them -- from why Serena sounds the way she does to those paddings of the backward glance (quote from the book). He has anticipated them all, and answered them all, so the review I was writing in my head before I read the last chapter is now irrelevant.

I have to admit that I felt a thrill (and was excited for the first time) on page 289 (out of 301) when I realized what he was doing, but that momentary feeling doesn't take away from what I thought was the biggest flaw of the book, the aforementioned 'padding,' which just doesn't read as interesting as it could've.

I can't decide if this book is annoying, clever, or both.

Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,701 followers
January 11, 2013
The opening paragraph of Sweet Tooth reveals the story's end, which is a tidy way of compelling you, dear reader, to focus on the important parts - the middle and such. You know it ends badly, so you can't possibly be disappointed; therefore, don't worry about it.

But then you remember that you are reading Ian McEwan, master of unreliable narrators and oft-tricksy endings, and you wonder - am I being told the truth of the ending as it is, or the truth as the narrator would have me see it? And suddenly you are on edge, tense, looking for clues. Oh, Ian, you clever, clever man.

The plot is playful: a young co-ed, Serene Frome (rhymes with Plume), flops a bit in her maths degree and flounders after graduating Cambridge in 1972. Although well-bred and well-read, Serena's ambitions are limited. But she is recruited, by way of an affair with a retread professor, into the secretarial pool of MI5. Seeing her pliability, borne of boredom and upper-middle class ease, her superiors envelope her in an undercover operation, code-named "Sweet Tooth." Sweet Tooth is a cultural op - its mission is to identify and promote British writers who demonstrate anti-Communist philosophies. The writers are led to believe a literary foundation is behind the generous financial support and their only responsibility is to write away, honing their brilliance. Serena's assignment is to recruit a young writer and English professor, Tom Haley, into the scheme. It's not such a difficult mission, as it's hard to imagine any struggling writer turning down a pot of cash from a well-known foundation which has just stroked his ego until he is as content as a cat with a bowl of cream. But Serena manages to muck things up royally, by falling in love with her target.

Sweet Tooth isn't really a Cold War cloaks and codes thriller, as much as its pretty and pretty vacant heroine would love it to be (she's a simple girl who just wants to have fun. Or, if she can't have that, she'd be happy curling up in her dreary bedsit with a novel - Jacqueline Susann is just as good, if not better than, Jane Austen, thank you very much). It's a slowly unraveling set piece, chock full of deceptive aplomb, in which everything turns to custard with surreal glee.

Unfortunately, there are all sorts of draggy parts in the middle. But don't you dare skim, because you'll miss the clues that'll catch you in a cross-double cross that I dare not spoil here. And lots of author self-indulgence, as McEwan weaves in snippets of his short stories and real life characters from his early career; it's a satirical rewriting of the author's own history. The short stories within the story are terrific and the spy agency-funded rise and hilariously ironic fall of a writer - based on a true story - is fascinating.

Hang out with the fact that Serena stops sounding like a young woman coming of age in the early 1970s and starts sounding the way a man would imagine a young woman would think and behave; McEwan is particularly adept at writing women and I couldn't quite accept a failure here (Blue's Clues!) File away as interesting asides, but let off the hook, the red herrings of the IRA and Russian double-agents and jilted MI5 bureaucrats. They won't get you anywhere. And sad is the case of Tony Canning, one of the most interesting subplots - the one that could have turned this book from writer's folly into legit thriller: his story dead-ends with nothing but a nosebleed to show for all the trouble.

I'm equivocating - I can't quite commit to saying that I think Sweet Tooth is a great book - I found it a bit too smug to buy a theme of the power of literature (as some reviews have claimed) - there was too much stifled laughter and indulgent sweet (tooth) ness for something so grand. It also wasn't that great of a thriller, which it doesn't pretend to be, (but again, other reviews have found a John Le Carre note that I can't carry). But it is terrifically entertaining - all plummy accents and witty repartee that make Americans swoon in equal measure for Downton Abbey and 007 - and McEwan's fine, fine writing is irresistible.

And then there is that Absolutely Fabulous ending.

Enjoy Sweet Tooth. Seriously. Don't read heaps into it, just enjoy the read.
Profile Image for Kim.
426 reviews507 followers
October 21, 2012

In my review of On Chesil Beach, I commented that I hadn’t read any of McEwan’s work since being profoundly disturbed by The Child in Time when I read it in the late 1980s. On Chesil Beach made me realise that I wanted to read more McEwan. I was therefore interested in this novel as soon as I saw it on the “new releases” table in my local bookstore. I elected to listen to the audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson, as it was cheaper for me to acquire than the text version and I knew from past experience that whatever the novel was like, Stevenson’s narration would be superb.

Set in England in the early 1970s, the novel is a first person narrative which tells the story of Serena Frome, a naive young Cambridge graduate with a mediocre degree in mathematics, who is recruited to the British domestic intelligence service (MI5) through her lover, a middle-aged academic. Serena is a voracious, if not particularly careful, reader of fiction. She particularly likes social realist novels, containing a character with whom she can identify. Because of her familiarity with modern literary fiction, she is assigned to Operation Sweet Tooth, MI5’s excursion into the propaganda aspect of the Cold War. MI5 has decided to fund a number of writers identified as unsympathetic to Russia and to communism. The funds are channeled through a front organization and the writers are unaware of the ultimate source of the money and of their intended role as weapons in the war of ideas. Serena is assigned to recruit Tom Haley, a young writer who has published a number of short stories and who has written in support of writers in detention in the Eastern Bloc. Serena initially falls for Haley’s writing and they eventually fall in love, which puts her in a moral quandary. Does she tell Tom who she is and what she does, which would mean losing her job and losing his love? Does she say nothing and continue to deceive him?

There are lots of things I love about this novel. McEwan’s prose is elegant and accessible. He conveys the atmosphere in London in the early 1970s: strikes, energy cuts, IRA bombings, pub rock and dingy share houses in what was then down-at-heel and is now super-gentrified Camden. McEwan also conveys the sexism of office politics and the condescending attitude towards women in the workplace. Serena is an interesting character with a believable voice. I'm always impressed when a male novelist writes convincingly from a female point of view. She is sexy and beautiful, clever in some ways but totally clueless and lacking in insight, something of a snob and frequently irritating, but fundamentally decent and troubled by her conscience. For much of the novel I didn't like Serena very much, but I developed sympathy for her as the narrative progressed.

Tom Haley is also interesting, in part because McEwan gave the character much of his own background. Like McEwan, Tom is a University of Sussex graduate who wrote short stories before he wrote novels and a number of Tom’s short stories - which are summarised in the work and explained through Serena’s reaction to them - are stories actually written by McEwan. (I know this from reading an interview with McEwan in my local newspaper). In addition, McEwan’s editor becomes Tom’s editor and a number of other literary identities from McEwan’s life become part of Tom’s life. While Tom is attractive and likeable, when I realised just how much of McEwan’s life story he shared, it seemed excessive and somewhat self-indulgent. Once I’d finished the work, though, I felt that less strongly, although the feeling didn’t entirely disappear.

This is not an espionage novel, notwithstanding the plot. It’s a novel about the process of writing and the process of reading, about the control of the narrative in a novel and about relationship between writers and readers. It’s also about truth, deception and trust. These metafiction aspects of the work are what I love most of all.

From a slow start, McEwan builds up the tension and eventually the novel becomes a page-turner. In audiobook terms, it made for compulsive listening. As I listened, I knew that there’d be a twist at the end and I tried to work out what it might be. I was right about one aspect of the resolution – what in my view is probably its least plausible aspect – but I didn’t otherwise guess where McEwan was going. And for that, I am very grateful. Being taken by surprise made for a much more enjoyable literary experience. I found the work engaging and entertaining enough to be able to suspend disbelief.

Since finishing the book yesterday morning, I’ve read a number of reviews, written by both professional critics and other readers here on GR. Many of the more negative reviews express disappointment that the book is not as good as those works which the reviewers consider to be McEwan’s best. As someone who has read so little of McEwan’s writing, all I can say is that if this is not one of his better novels, then I have a lot of pleasure ahead me as I read those which are.

More than a day after finishing the audiobook, I’m still thinking about the writing and the characters. Generally that would lead to a five star rating. I remain of the view that the extent of the autobiographical material was self-indulgent (although it did heighten the sense of the work as metafiction), and that makes me inclined to knock off a star. On the other hand, Juliet Stevenson’s narration was so amazing (have I mentioned that I adore having her read to me?), that it deserves five stars all of its own. So 4.5 stars it is, at least for now. Until I decide which novel really is McEwan’s best work.
Profile Image for Samadrita.
295 reviews4,522 followers
July 14, 2013
To pigeonhole Sweet Tooth into a specific genre will be an act of folly. In the beginning it gives off the impression of a mere Cold war era spy thriller, then steps with casual ease into the territory of metafiction and in the end it changes tack and becomes a meditation on romance.
But even so it never appears indecisive or loses sight of what it sets out to do - which is to juxtapose several contrasting themes and give us a fast-paced yet compelling human drama unfolding against the bleak backdrop of a 70s Britain.

The heroine, Serena Frome, is the quintessential beautiful spy but not of the kind shown in James Bond movies. She is smart but average, loves reading fiction but is a dilettante. She is almost unsuspectingly recruited into MI5 by her lover, a much older man and a former MI5 operative, and is made part of a project codenamed 'Sweet Tooth', the purpose of which is to fund authors, journalists, academicians willing to publish writings echoing a largely anti-Soviet, pro-Capitalist rhetoric.
She is asked to bring under the ambit of 'Sweet Tooth', a rising new literary talent named Tom Haley and the first meeting of these two characters sets into motion an interconnected chain of events involving lies, charades, passion, jealousy, disillusionment, eventually culminating in a terrific climax which is undoubtedly the most memorable part of the narrative.

If one blocks out all the chatter about Cold war politics, Soviet persecution of academics, writers and journalists, Britain and MI5's almost sycophantic willingness to please America at all costs, what remains is an ode to the spirit of creative freedom. Because in course of the narrative, the 'Sweet Tooth' project derails and its key objectives of fuelling anti-Communist propaganda fail spectacularly when Tom ends up writing an award-winning novella denouncing a Capitalist world order.

Thus what McEwan seems to want to highlight here is the conflict between the political establishment of any country and its literary and academic circles. While essentially one side seeks to subtly influence and control everything, the other side possesses the power of remaining unaffected and even defiant, but at the peril of personal and professional ruin.
And the reader is left with a sense of the human quest for liberty, be it creative or political or religious or social, and how it cannot be subdued or kept under leash.

Tom Haley and Serena's affair forms the backbone of the story and adds an almost spiritual dimension to it - their mutual deceit merge with their feelings for one another, melding into a fiery yet unique kind of love which ultimately proves to be much stronger than the crude manipulations and deceptions practised by the world around them.
Profile Image for Joe Valdez.
478 reviews786 followers
April 7, 2017
My introduction to the fiction of Ian McEwan is Sweet Tooth, the author's 2012 literary thriller that aroused my senses like spying on an attractive woman in a London used bookstore might (while on a diplomatic mission, of course). Rather than run wild with the fantastical elements of espionage--with ninjas, neurotoxins or nightclubs--this is an atmospheric document of our narrator's affairs, with the professional careening into the sexual and literature directing her fate. The novel is a book lover's delight and a voyeur's as well, with McEwan orchestrating and playing the reader with information in a way I found exhilarating.

The story is the account of Serena Frome, who announces that her eighteen month post-collegiate career with the British Security Service ended in her disgrace, her lover's ruin and her sacking. The eldest of two daughters of an Anglican bishop, Serena leaves her hometown of Camden in 1969 for Newnham College in Cambridge, where her mother convinces Serena to shelve her love of literature for a higher calling, a feminist calling, pursuing a first in mathematics, which Serena tests extremely well in. Losing her virginity her first term, she eventually settles on an intimately aloof historian named Jeremy Mott as a boyfriend.

Serena gains popularity writing punchy book reviews for a startup magazine. She has less success penetrating her boyfriend's anxiety toward her and when her articles take on a somber, anticommunist slant, she loses the gig. Jeremy introduces Serena to his tutor, Tony Canning, who's in his mid-fifties and nearly the age of Serena's father. Finding him good-looking and charming, she throws herself into an affair with the married professor. When Jeremy moves to Edinburgh and notifies Serena that he's in love with a man, she spends her post-graduate summer with Canning at his cottage in Suffolk. Canning takes charge of her education, emphasizing history and current events.

That year, 1972, was just the beginning. When I started reading the paper the three-day week, the next power cuts, the government's fifth state of emergency were not so far ahead of us. I believed what I read, but it seemed remote. Cambridge looked much the same, and so did the woods around the Cannings' cottage. Despite my history lessons I felt I had no stake in the nation's fate. I owned one suitcase of clothes, fewer than fifty books, some childhood things in my bedroom at home. I had a lover who adored me and cooked for me and never threatened to leave his wife. I had one obligation, a job interview-- weeks away. I was free.

Telling her parents she's considering the Civil Service, Serena is being groomed by Canning for an interview with the Security Service, MI5, where he has contacts. Though her affair implodes in September, Serena goes through with her interviews in London. Offered the position of junior assistant officer, Serena intends to reject it. Her masochism at being rejected by Canning and her need for a higher purpose compel her to take the job. In the early months of 1973, Serena makes friends with a caustic fellow clerical officer named Shirley Shilling. A postcard from Jeremy notifies her that .

Through the lectures she's mandated to attend, Serena meets Max Greatorex, a thirty year old desk officer she finds reticent but grows enamored by. Initially as interested in Tony Canning as Serena, Max tempers any office romance by announcing that he's engaged. Serena's job gets marginally intriguing when she and Shirley are dispatched to a London safehouse and instructed to clean the place up--a civilian maid service hardly appropriate for the job. In one of the rooms, Serena finds blood on a pillowcase and under the bed, a slip of paper with the name of the Baltic island which Canning retired to: Kumlinge.

Continuing to devour three or four books a week, Serena is summoned for a meeting with Max and several superior officers, where the men quiz her about contemporary literature. She's introduced to Sweet Tooth, a project that seeks to clandestinely scout, fund and develop authors or journalists who've demonstrated the potential to be useful in the culture war against communism. MI5 seeks to promote capitalism stateside just like the CIA has been doing in Europe for decades. Sweet Tooth needs an author of Serena's generation and Max has one who they want to recruit: Thomas Haley, pursuing a doctorate in literature in Brighton. They want Serena to sign Haley.

I count those first hours with his fiction as among the happiest in my time at Five. All my needs beyond the sexual met and merged: I was reading, I was doing it for a higher purpose that gave me professional pride, and I was soon to meet the author. Did I have doubts or moral qualms about the project? Not at that stage. I was pleased to have been chosen. I thought I could do the job well. I thought might earn praise from the higher floors in the building--I was a girl who liked to be praised. If someone had asked, I would have said we were nothing more than a clandestine Arts Council. The opportunities we offered were as good as any.

If things remained uncomplicated, Sweet Tooth wouldn't be a great novel and it is very much something like one. In addition to devoting his story to spycraft as it might be practiced by human beings--intellectually tough and emotionally complicated--McEwan absorbs both literature and history of the moment for all its worth. This is a book that demands to have its margins penciled in with books or historical events to look at in greater detail: the British states of emergency, the miners' strikes, the IRA. There's a climate of fear over the story that made Serena's relationship with Haley fraught with much greater peril than if it had taken place in the present.

Sweet Tooth has a strong adult current to it that pulled me in. Despite the espionage hook, McEwan seemed more intrigued by how a spy's relationships would transform her, help her swim or sink her. The paragraphs devoted to Serena encountering Canning, Max and Haley for the first time, a bit out of her depth, making things up as she goes along and always attracted to what she can't see in them seemed fully developed to me. The apprehension, surprises and joy of a budding romance are explored in depth here without the novel ever turning sentimental. Serena describing how she comes to enjoy oysters and champagne with Haley even though she doesn't much like them is priceless.

Another aspect that McEwan surprised me with was his finesse at branching away from the "real world" to explore the worlds of Haley's writing. I rarely find fiction within fiction very palatable, but here, the B-story of Haley's work is nearly as compelling as his A-story featuring Serena. McEwan explores how a lover can inspire and help a creator develop a work of art and whose story it then becomes. Scattered showers like this build across the book until McEwan confronts the reader with . Thinking about the book a day later, I still don't know. And the writing is exquisite:

To relax, to ease ourselves toward the bed I was sitting on, we talked books in a light and careless way, hardly bothering to make a case when we disagreed, which was at every turn. He had no time for my kind of women--his hand moved past the Byatt and the Drabbles, past Monica Dickens and Elizabeth Bowen, those novels I had inhabited so happily. He found and praised Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat. I said I found it too schematic and preferred The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. He nodded, but not in agreement, it seemed, more like a therapist who now understood my problem. Without leaving the chair he stretched forward and picked up John Fowles' The Magus and said he admired parts of that, as well as all of The Collector and The French Lieutenant's Woman. I said I didn't like tricks, I liked life as I knew it re-created on the page. He said it wasn't possible to re-create life on the page without tricks.

Sweet Tooth was a doubles read with Jenny, whose taste in books is far more eclectic than mine. Her thoughts on the novel can be read here. She reads much faster than me but her book report, like all of those she writes, is well worth reading. Beware that she does discuss the ending, something I ignored because I was so curious to read her opinion.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Bailey.
216 reviews7 followers
November 24, 2012
If you want to read an Ian McEwan novel, choose a different one! McEwan has long been one of my favorite authors, but Sweet Tooth was hugely unsatisfying for me. I struggled to get through it; the plot dragged and the characters were both unbelievable and unlikable. It was well-written, but it lacked the emotional depth and psychological insight that to me is the mark of a great McEwan novel.

The book has been marketed as a "spy thriller," and you'll be especially disappointed if you start reading with those expectations. The book is actually a rather tedious and overworked meditation on literature. At one point, the main character tells her boyfriend (a doppleganger for McEwan) that she doesn't like tricks in books. "I like life as I know it recreated on the page," she says. Her boyfriend/McEwan replies, "it isn't possible to recreate life on the page without tricks."

There are tricks in this story, but they seemed tired and worn thin to me. It felt like McEwan was trying to be too clever, and the plot suffered because of it.
Profile Image for Maciek.
558 reviews3,270 followers
November 26, 2020
The American edition of Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan's latest novel, has a delightful cover - an image of a woman standing at a train station, looking over the tracks and into the distance. The image is in sepia, and the font in which the author and the title are printed have obviously been carefully prepared to resemble the classic paperback covers from the 70's. The effect is quite delightful and definitely works. It is also dedicated to the late Christopher Hitchens brought that fine man back to my mind

The last novel by McEwan that I've read was The Innocent, which is a curious coincidence - both Sweet Tooth and The Innocent are set during the Cold War. The Innocent is an espionage drama set in West Berlin, where the western powers plan on digging a tunnel to to East Berlin to tap the phones to the Soviet High Command. It is centered around Leonard and Maria, an English agent and a German woman. The novel is quite engrossing and I prefer it to much of McEwan's later works, yet somehow it did not quite get the recognition that they did.

Sweet Tooth is narrated by Serena Frome (rhymes with Plume) and takes place in Britain of the 1970's. Serena is an avid (though hardly critical) reader, and though authorial machinations lands a job at the MI5. Since the world is divided by the Cold War, British government wants to fight the communist propaganda - by giving financial help to artists with an anti-communist bent, thereby influencing their will to create and relax the material worries. Of course, none of this is official and none of the artists - both inside and outside Britain - have any idea that they are being supported by the MI5 an it is crucial that they do not learn this. "Sweet Tooth" is the codename the MI5 gave Thomas Halley, a rising British writer, and Serena is employed to evaluate him and if he gains her approval to carry out the operation.

While McEwan is without a doubt an author known to write good prose, the novel falls a bit short in terms of storytelling - and at the same time it does not. The outcome is revealed at the beginning - it is no secret and is made clear right in the first sentence - and the main characters feel more like devices used by the author to discuss politics and the state of Britain at that particular point in time. Since both Serena and Thomas are passionate about literature - one a reader, the other a writer - their characters at times feel as if they serves as a device for the author to contrast two different viewpoints on certain issues, not two authentic human beings that interact with one another. The end I felt was satisfying but tied everything with a bow, and one feels that the novel would have worked better as a novella or even a short story. Yet, with all its flaws Sweet Tooth is a clever piece of work, which gives its author a way of protecting himself against these criticism. To reveal its secret would be to spoil it - so I included the spoiler material in its appropriate section.

Cold War fiction has never really been known for being packed with James Bonds (read any Le Carre with that old curmudgeon, George Smiley?) but dealt more with the internal affairs of agencies and individuals working for them, often involving a considerable deal of paper pushing. This novel will not bring much new into that canon, and will not challenge the estabilished masters of the theme - it is an interesting if not extraordinary work by one of Britain's major writers, bound to provoke different reactions. I was not overwhelmed but also not disappointed. Still, I wish that I found more in Sweet Tooth to enjoy - although well-written and planned out, it ultimately felt like a set of authorial shenanigans sput and put before the audience, with the spinner never completely disappearing behind a curtain.
Profile Image for Fabian.
940 reviews1,546 followers
April 27, 2020
Another egotistical effort by the English maestro. (A writer that knows how important & essential the writer is and don't you forget it.) But this one is not the atrocious ego-driven character bullshit "Saturday," nor the slow & ultimately unengaging unengagement tale "On Chesil Beach." Thank god! (I assume "Lunar" is as successful as this one, in ungluing its reputation from McEwan, A.A.*)

An MI5 literary-division spy affects the writing of her charge, a writer of the revolution; she gives him suggestions & becomes in a sense, cowriter. Inspiration. (Oh, you've read enough stories like this to know where this is goin'...) But then the tide changes by the end, in the fabulous style of his most famous novel by the end of "Sweet Tooth," a too-confident story by the English writer who knows how much debt the reader owes his writer... (This one belongs under the Writer-as-Messiah novels: Amsterdam, Atonement--so yeah, basically his better ones.)

*A.A. After "Atonement"
May 6, 2015
This was really reading totally outside any genre of interest to me. Something about the cover got me.(I'm shallow like that).

Clever, but not terribly likeable, girl goes to Cambridge to study Maths which she doesn't work at (she'd rather be reading novels) but her main motivating factor is lurrrrrve. It would be, wouldn't it? So she falls in love with an older slightly mysterious married man which leads to a job as a real-life spy. So of course she falls in lurrrrve with the guy who is the mark. And it all ends badly. There is a cast of somewhat hackneyed characters, some jealous of promotion, some who want to sleep with her, the evil girlfriend who really likes her...

It isn't a bad read, it has two major things going for it, one, it is dedicated to the late, great, iconoclastic author Christopher Hitchens and two, it is a really beautifully written story with great character development and pacing. That wasn't enough to persuade me ever to read another McEwan because I don't really enjoy this sort of book, but if this is your sort of genre, then I would definitely recommend it.

I wish the cover artist would get a small credit on the cover, then I might remember their names, some of them are really superb, like this one.

So: three stars for the book and five stars for the cover artist = 4 stars.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,113 reviews8,046 followers
January 5, 2019
I'm completely baffled by this book. All I want to do is go read analysis of it because it's so layered. So for that I have to say it did a great job as a novel of making me think, keeping me on my toes, and keeping me intrigued. It's not perfect by any means, and there are times I was a bit bored. But it was wholly original and enjoyable to read most of the time, and I loved the last chapter.
Profile Image for Betsy Robinson.
Author 9 books1,019 followers
January 23, 2018
I would like to know Ian McEwan—to be the kind of friend who meets him for lunch. If I were, I’d say, “All right, Ian, give it up. Tell me straight. How do you know what it feels like to be a woman? How do you know the sensations, the thoughts women rarely say about being with men? Don’t lie. I promise I’ll keep it a secret.”

I think all good writers become their characters and hence, they are writing from an authentic place that is much bigger than who they are in day-to-day life. Plus, there is always research—asking a good friend for details. I’ve done both of these things. When I was writing mostly plays, I felt wonderful when I saw how easily male actors fit into the parts I wrote—how organic the feelings were, how the dialogue came easily. I think I write real men, and I know McEwan inhabits the Big Place and employs research to write real women—for goodness sake, he says as much in this book. But still …

This meandering but ultimately astonishing spy story is my seventh Ian McEwan book, the fifth with a fully complex protagonist or major character who is a woman, and his gut-level understanding is better than that in a slew of books by women. I guess the answer is simply that he is a much better writer than anybody who writes shallow or stereotypical people. But still …

This book invites writerly concerns, so I’ll note some more: With this story, more than the other McEwans I’ve read, I was fixated by how he not only moved time and plot forward via narrative alone, but in the process, he fleshed out relationships through time; relationships that were merely first meetings in a scene were then pushed into intimacy using narrative alone, and you feel and care about them as if you’ve read slow development through scenes. (I think the only other instance I’ve read this much narrative and had it do the work of scenes is John Williams’s amazing Stoner .) To my mind, through his body of work, McEwan offers a master class in a difficult, often impossible, use of narrative. And in this book, his repeating themes of lying, plus the delightfully subversive playing with the reader/writer relationship (balance of power—another theme) along with the art of turning life into fiction, plus subtle teasing of the very reader of this book were like musical movements within a cohesive symphony. For instance, talking about books and writing, the protagonist, a spy, talks to her asset, a writer who does not know he is an asset:
I said I didn’t like tricks, I liked life as I knew it re-created on the page. He said it wasn’t possible to re-create life on the page without tricks. (218)
(To get the full joke of this, you must read the book.)

Well anyway, you are so much fun, Ian. Truly a “writer’s writer.” And since I’m a writer, I really do think I understand what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. But still …
Profile Image for Becky.
47 reviews16 followers
July 22, 2012
Ian McEwan leaves me a little speechless, like an encounter with a movie star might, though I'm much more impressed by his writing ability and sense of what drives people, than I am by good looks and $20M a movie. (That said, I have met him and, for a gentleman of a certain age, he is quite attractive, and I dare say, not poor.) Each page of his books, and Sweet Tooth is no exception, makes me swoon a little. So, while parts of Sweet Tooth were a little lost on my dim bulb (I'll never fully grasp the difference between MI5 and MI6), and the significance of literature in Cold War Britain is still kind of murky, McEwan's language and observational acuity more than secures his place on my list of favorite authors of all time.
July 5, 2018
On the one hand, the heroine's insights on the whys and hows of other people's actions felt empowering. Her ongoing evaluation of the ultimate reasons for about everyone's actions was quite formidable.
On the other hand, her emotional rollercoaster felt incredibly weird. Are there really people who do pay that much attention to their emotions?
Sweet, lingering prose. Beautiful language, intoxicating imagery. An intersection of many styles of writing. A very memorable book to read in languor.
Oh, my God! Till the very end I felt the whole affair was doomed. And, after it all, such a gift to an escapist reader (namely me), such an unbelievable ending: 'Dearest Serena, it’s up to you.' I just love it! It's incredible!
Miss Serena Frome as well as Tom Haley (unlike Max Greatorex) are definitely going to be on the list of my favourite characters to remember.

... he was doing that inexcusable thing that men who liked cannabis tended to do, which was to go on about it – some famous stuff from a special village in Thailand, the terrifying near-bust one night, the view across a certain holy lake at sunset under the influence, a hilarious misunderstanding in a bus station and other stultifying anecdotes. What was wrong with our generation? Our parents had the war to be boring about. We had this.
Arguing with a dead man in a lavatory is a claustrophobic experience.
While my friends struggled and calculated, I reached a solution by a set of floating steps that were partly visual, partly just a feeling for what was right. It was hard to explain how I knew what I knew.
Join MI5? I was ready to lead it.
Reading was my way of not thinking about maths. More than that (or do I mean less?), it was my way of not thinking.
But this inglorious revolution wasn't for me. I didn't want a sex shop in every town.
In difficult moments it’s sometimes a good idea to ask yourself what it is you most want to be doing and consider how it can be achieved. If it can’t, move on to the second best thing.
In our decline we live in the shadow of giants.
In difficult moments it’s sometimes a good idea to ask yourself what it is you most want to be doing and consider how it can be achieved. If it can’t, move on to the second best thing. I wanted to be with Tom, in bed with him, across a table from him, holding his hand in the street. Failing that, I wanted to think about him. So that is what I did for half an hour on Christmas Eve, I worshipped him, I thought about our times together, his strong yet childlike body, our growing fondness, his work, and how I might help. I pushed away any consideration of the secret I was keeping from him. Instead, I thought about the freedom I’d brought into his life, how I’d helped him with ‘Probable Adultery’ and would help with much more. All so rich. I decided to write down these thoughts in a letter to him, a lyrical, passionate letter. I’d tell him how I came apart at my own front door and wept on my father’s chest.
It wasn’t a good idea to be sitting motionless on stone in sub-zero temperatures. I was beginning to shiver. Then I heard my sister calling me again from somewhere in the close. She sounded concerned, and that was when I began to come to my senses and realise that my behaviour must have seemed unfriendly. It had been influenced by a puff on the Christmas cracker. How unlikely it now seemed, for Luke to have been wilfully dull in order to secure a few moments alone with Lucy. It was difficult to understand one’s own errors of judgement when the entity, the mind, that was attempting the understanding was befuddled. Now I was thinking clearly.
... had reached that point in a drinking session when the conversation patrols endlessly the tiny perimeters of a minor detail.
We got in the bath together, topped and tailed, and massaged each other’s feet and sang old Beatles songs. He got out long before me, dried himself and went off to find more towels. He was drunk too, but he was tender as he helped me out of the bath, and dried me like a child, and led me to the bed. He went downstairs and came back with mugs of tea and got in beside me. Then he took very special care of me.
Months, and then years later, after all that happened, whenever I woke in the night and needed comfort, I’d summon that early winter evening when I lay in his arms and he kissed my face, and told me over and over again how silly I’d been, how sorry he was, and how he loved me.
I experienced again the vague longing and frustration that came with the idea that I was living the wrong sort of life. I hadn’t chosen it for myself. It was all down to chance. If I hadn’t met Jeremy, and therefore Tony, I wouldn’t be in this mess, travelling at speed towards some kind of disaster I didn’t dare contemplate.
Our moment was thirty years ago. In our decline we live in the shadow of giants.
To recreate you on the page I had to become you and understand you (this is what novels demand), and in doing that, well, the inevitable happened. When I poured myself into your skin I should have guessed at the consequences. I still love you. No, that’s not it. I love you more.
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,050 reviews1,834 followers
March 29, 2016
Thanks for nothing, Ian McEwan.

I really don't appreciate

Yes, yes, you're very clever.

Two stars because the writing is good and I liked the story.

Minus three stars for being a jerk.

I'm NOT ENJOYING this recent obsession with authors dearest.


UPDATE 10/06/2014: On a more personal level, I was enjoying the heck out of the book and psychoanalyzing the main character. I was pleased as punch at how cold and even exhibiting some sort of pathological condition, and I was pleased to see how she was treating men and dealing with relationships - it was SO FASCINATING that a woman had been written this way. I was all over this and very happy. Then imagine my devastation and distress when I realized I was devastated. DEVASTATED. What I thought was innovative and intriguing character development turned out to be nothing more than the I can't tell you how much this crushed me. I thought I had really found an amazing, interesting female main character - and written by a male author, no less! - only to have all my dreams and hopes destroyed by McEwan's "Look at me I'm so clever" ending.

If it wasn't for that big reveal - this book might have gotten 4 or even 5 stars from me.

I was feeling too angry and betrayed when I wrote my first review, and so I thought I'd update to make my feelings a bit clearer.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
819 reviews752 followers
September 28, 2012
This is my third McEwan novel, so I am not veteran enough to compare elements of SWEET TOOTH to his large body of work, but a few aspects of his talent brought me back to ATONEMENT, which is one of my favorite British contemporary novels, and SOLAR, has last novel. ATONEMENT proved that McEwan pens female characters with finesse--even complex, conflicted girls like thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis. In SWEET TOOTH, he kicks the femme character up a notch by writing in the first-person perspective of a low-ranking spy in the early 1970s.

Serena Frome—rhymes with plume-- is an arresting woman in her 20’s, a graduate of Cambridge in maths, and a speed-reading lover of novels, especially character-driven ones. If I hadn’t known better, I would have believed that the author of SWEET TOOTH was a woman. He also provided, once again, an effective and scintillating finale, as did ATONEMENT and his satirical SOLAR. However, his narrative tone is unique here from the former two novels.

Serena, the daughter of an Anglican bishop, grew up in an insulated and well-tended atmosphere. Her mother wanted her to achieve success, and persuaded her to study maths at Cambridge, rather than her first love, literature. She was an average student in maths, while continuing to voraciously read novels, often skipping over descriptive paragraphs in order to get to the “character.”

“I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes, and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in…I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else.”

And love was firmly in Serena’s mind, as events in the book will reflect. Serena was also solidly anti-communist; her nuanced political views were shaped, in part, by an older, scholarly boyfriend, Tony Canning. It was through Tony that she was led to a job at the M15 (British Intelligence Agency). It is better for readers to find out for themselves how this happens.

This is a delightful narrative, with a warm, cheeky, animated, but intimate voice—the prose seems so effortless, is so sleek and smooth, that the words funneled instantly into my ear, as if I were hearing them as my own thoughts. There isn’t one false note in this book. After I finished the story, I continued to eavesdrop on Serena (in my imagination), and can conjure her up now, a week later.

On the one hand, this is a spy story, and there are enough clandestine, stealthy zigs and zags and twists and turns to remind me of John Banville and John le Carré, two novelists whose spy stories are as much about the internal pressures and conflicts of being undercover as they are about the action-oriented details. SWEET TOOTH isn’t about the plot, although it is a superbly satisfying story. It is a bildungsroman about Serena, seeking her own path, looking for love and shedding her naïveté.

Many renowned authors write novels that include a character of their own name, (often as fictionalized memoirs) such as Coetzee, Philip Roth, and a multitude of others. McEwan didn’t write in his name, but I intuit that he gave a wink and a nod to his (auto)biographical past. I sensed that from the intense workout he gave to the act and art of writing, and critique, and of the ego of writers, blending it with story. He did what is otherwise known as metafiction. According to Wikipedia, metafiction is defined this way:

“also known as Romantic irony in the context of Romantic works of literature, is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion.”

How sublime for McEwan to do this—exposing the fictional illusion in a novel ostensibly about spy work--which certainly incorporates illusion and identity, or the illusion of identity (or the identity of illusion?).

Where did the title come from? Well, I am not at liberty to tell, or I might have to erase you first! Just open and indulge your gourmet sweet tooth. There are no empty calories here, though, just a supremely satisfying and mouth-watering feast of fiction. Isn’t that the truth!

This review is based on the UK edition.
Profile Image for  amapola.
282 reviews32 followers
July 15, 2019
Bello senz’anima

C’è la spy story, c’è anche la storia d’amore, e poi ci sono gli anni ’70, c’è la Guerra Fredda, c’è un fatto di cronaca che ha ispirato il romanzo, c’è un’ambientazione grigia e squallida. Poi c’è la bravura di McEwan, la prosa fluente, i personaggi ben caratterizzati, la trama ben architettata, il finale a sorpresa… Gli ingredienti per piacermi c’erano tutti, ma qualcosa non ha funzionato nel modo giusto, non so bene che cosa, ma non mi ha coinvolta, mi ha provocato qualche sbadiglio di troppo; l’ho trovato un romanzo senz’anima, troppo costruito, freddo.
L’avesse scritto qualcun altro avrei dato due stelle, ma ho un debole per McEwan e gli perdono molto, perciò gli assegno la sufficienza.

(no, non è Cocciante :D)
Profile Image for Florence (Lefty) MacIntosh.
167 reviews504 followers
May 18, 2013
You need to have a thing for dark atmospheric novels; Sour Tooth would be more fitting. It’s certainly not a thriller and it��s a spy novel only in the literal sense. Timeline the 70’s, the intrigue of London’s M5 during the cold war really just background ambience for this character driven novel. It opens “My name is Serena Frome and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.
A spy novel, a given it’s about deception but with layers upon layers, deception taken to a whole new level. And to give credit where credit is due he’s masterful at pulling off the female voice.
Serena is beautiful, highly intelligent & well educated, raised with all the privileges of upper class society - and proof positive that emotional & intellectual intelligence don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Her tastes run to “clever, amoral, inventive, destructive men, single-minded, selfish, emotionally cool, and coolly attractive.” preferences that result in a series of decidedly bleak love affairs. I should have been wafted through life with the special dispensation that beauty bestows, discarding men at every turn. Instead, they abandoned me, or died on me. Or married.
Not a difficult read but it does require patience. At times it���s sharp & witty, then ploddingly slow, then a flash of brilliance, then back to a slog. Culminates in a pretty amazing ending though, I thought it was great. So, one of the most inconsistently written novels I’ve read. I’m ambivalent, how do you rate a book that alternates between dull and dazzling? I will read McEwan again, this one 3 1/2 stars rounded up to 4. I'm one of those people that like my novels dark now and then – just wish he’d work on the pacing…
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,923 reviews35.4k followers
April 7, 2013
I just started reading "Sweet Tooth" this morning before getting out of bed...
My My, I can see I'm in for delightful *Ian McEwan* ride.....with his key narrator/female **Serena**.... an Professor 'Tony'.

I wasn't crazy about Ian's last book "Solar"....nor a fan of "Chesil Beach" ---but a huge fan of most other books he wrote. ---(his early books) --

So far-- "Sweet Tooth" has the 'feel' of what I love best about Ian McEwan ---
He knows woman -- He knows men -- He knows about relationships -- "Sweet Tooth" is 'this' type of book --- I can see enough 'meat' coming ---

I'm enjoying the time period of Sweet Tooth: Cold War -- 1970's -- Cambridge (I was living in Cambridge myself in 1973) --
Love the 'affair' -- student/professor ---
This feels like an old fashion novel ---'secreterial pool of M15 ---

Its a 'tiny' bite 'smug' ---but who doesn't enjoy a little 'smug' in their novels, huh?

My Review:

WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OK.....This is now one of my top 3 favorite Ian McEwan books. Also, I might add, Ian McEwan has been one of my favorite authors since way back --(but having been a little disappointed with *Solar*, as it was just not my style --I was starting to forget what I LOVED SOOOO MUCH about Ian McEwan --(never again)!

THIS book has it ALL!! --
So much I could say--but if I say too much --I could give away too much.

Interesting to me though, (I can't stop thinking about this book), --is the character 'Tom Haley'.
Having read many other books by McEwan ---I couldn't help but wonder if Tom Haley was 'somewhat' a younger Ian....(a little biographical)??
Tom Haley was even of the same physical type of body as Ian.
Also-- Tom Haley was the character I most love want discuss.

In many ways --he reminds me of my own husband....(ok, this is strange) --
...and yet, I can't say 'why' in this review without giving too much away. I plan to discuss 'Tom Haley' more at another time.

All the references made to authors in "Sweet Tooth' adds richness. Many were mentioned: Arthur Miller, T.S. Elliot, Philip Roth, Kingsely Amis, Martin Amis, Edward Thomas, Margaret Drabble, ....etc.
A conversation between about the poem "Whitsun Weddings" by Philip Larkin was 'much' like the conversation Ian had with his good friend, Chistopher Hitcheus, before he died. ---
Noting that Ian decicated "Sweet Tooth" to his good friend *Christopher Hitcheus*. (I'm just so very moved). I cried a little before going to sleep last night.

Ian McEwan challenges readers: Sometimes I re-evaluate the question for myself: "why do I read"? My fast answer is "for pleasure, and comfort".
Yet, then why do I join book clubs? I must need to fulfill a deeper need. Conversation is vital to a good book!

In *Sweet Tooth*:
Serena Frome (rhymes with plume), she read 'fast' -- for pure pleasure.
Tom Haely, on the other hand, implied that without critical thinking, literature was worthless junk.

Without a telephone system, telephones are worthless junk. Without a critical reading audience, Ian implies works of literture are worthless junk. [THINK ABOUT THAT!!!]

Profile Image for Kirsten .
231 reviews89 followers
February 12, 2023
Bloody brilliant! So many thoughts after having finished this last night, most dominant feeling is sadness that it is over, but luckily I have more Ian McEwan- books to devour.

It is most definitely a spy novel, some reviews say it isn’t, but I heartily disagree. And so cleverly done, especially the ending, here is really a writer who knows how to construct an excellent finale.

The funny thing is that it is written in 2012 and takes place in the mid 1970s (or perhaps start 70s) but it feels very relevant for today with the fuel crisis and heating problems, at that time it was the strikes with the coalminers that caused British homes to be freezing cold and at that time the Cold War was raging and today we are again turning down the heat and the culprit is the same as in the 1970s.

And to think that I had almost given up on his authorship because I wasn’t convinced that Atonement was a masterpiece….. But to be fair, there are dull bits in this novel too, I must confess I skipped a few pages in the cited stories by Tom. I put that down to the fact that I was meant to find them a bit boring.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,004 reviews218 followers
August 13, 2016
Just some open-ended thoughts. And spoilers, too, I suppose:

I wonder if one of the reasons Serena is such a weak, passive, shallow main character is because, despite the first-person POV, McEwan can't quite bring himself to inhabit her? He has diluted her by having another character write her/spy on her (whom McEwan himself is writing/spying on).

Note: In an interview promoting this book McEwan claimed that he has a prejudice against first-person narratives: "There are too many of them. They're too easy; it's just ventriloquism and authors can hide their terrible style behind characterisation. Any number of cliches are permitted."

So before I knew the "trick" (I didn't catch on early), I was rather pleased with myself for noticing that Serena's affairs took the shape and guise of a novel, and her insights and how she "read" the people around her were exactly how a vapid romantic heroine would unconsciously shape her life. (Like those people whose lives appear to be one drama after another, but dramas often of their own creation.) Serena says "All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form." - and that's what her life turns out to be like - so un-prosaic! But then, was I not duped myself, since it turned out Serena really WAS a fictional character within a fiction within a fiction . . . and so who is the bad reader? ... Because I'm vaguely disturbed by McEwan's apparent mocking of readers (the "basest of readers"), while at the same time allowing Serena to assume she's an ideal reader, one who is knowledgeable and well-read - because she reads fast and indiscriminately. I took some mean-spirited pleasure in reading his descriptions of a person who craves "a form of naive realism," who assumes she can gauge the quality of writing by the extent to which it aligns with her own impressions. I can't quite put my finger on just why, but it bothers me that McEwan is mocking a sort of reader that I'm sure I am not - I don't judge fiction that way - but ....? Wouldn't I consider myself an ideal reader of certain works? Don't I read too fast (albeit with discernment to spare)?

Profile Image for Celeste   Corrêa.
278 reviews142 followers
July 18, 2021
Quase todas as resenhas que li sobre este livro, iniciam transcrevendo o primeiro parágrafo; por minha parte, prefiro citar o final:

« A decisão é tua, Serena. »

Serena Frome começou por escrever num pasquim para estudantes e, por circunstâncias várias, chegou a agente nos Serviços Secretos Britânicos, MI5.
Num certo sentido, a história começa quando lhe atribuem uma missão duradoura, específica e barata: deduzir as ideias de Tom Haley - escritor e jornalista, licenciado em Inglês a fazer um doutoramento na mesma área - , com o intuito de lhe oferecer uma bolsa através de uma organização de fachada que lhe permitirá não ter um trabalho a tempo inteiro durante um ou dois anos, talvez mesmo três.

Estamos nos anos 70 do século XX em plena Guerra Fria. Tom Haley deverá reunir as exigências pretendidas pelo MI5: perder um momento com os seus companheiros em dificuldades do Bloco de Leste , apoiá-los, assinar petições a favor de escritores perseguidos, não ter medo de falar em público sobre os escritores detidos na Cuba de Castro.
Uma missão secreta da qual Tom Haley não pode desconfiar. Conseguirá a doce, exibicionista, estouvada, galanteadora Serena cumprir a sua tarefa? Apaixonar-se-á por ele?
As primeiras horas de contacto com a ficção ( maravilhosa ) de Tom foram umas das mais felizes que Serena passou no MI5: «Todas as minhas necessidades, excepto as sexuais, se satisfizeram e fundiram.»

Parece que escrevo sobre um livro banal, mas não. É magistralmente arquitectado , uma mistura eficaz de teorias matemáticas e boa literatura.

O final? Perfeito.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
633 reviews43 followers
October 2, 2012
Love and Deception and Love

“Sweet Tooth” is set in the first few years of the 1970’s at the height of the cold war. Serena, who is anything but serene, is attending Cambridge studying maths at her mother’s insistence. She earns a third, poor girl. She’d much rather be studying English Literature because all her life she’s devoured book after book searching for an ever more romantic ‘I do’. To her delight she has a few love affairs while at school and one of her beaux leads her to a job at MI5 upon graduation. Since it was the 70’s there were two career tracks…a real one that includes promotion and possible excitement or at least interesting work and the one for women that involves typing, filing and making tea. No problem. Serena makes her own excitement. I’m a cold war, spy novel fan so I loved that angle and this one centered on literature, another interest of mine. McEwan provides a very believable plot that holds interest but I would have liked less romance and more intrigue, still I enjoyed the book quite a lot. I’ve never felt let down by ANY of his books.

I’m a McEwan fan and have read about half of his books. If this book had been written by any other author I’d probably give it five stars but in comparison to his other books it fell slightly flat. It lacked the dense texture of “Atonement”, the immediacy of the situation in “Saturday”, the emotional depth of “On Chesil Beach”. For now I’ve rated it a four out of five stars but as I sit with it more that might change. I only finished it yesterday and sometimes, depending on how a book lingers in my mind or doesn’t, my rating may change though I can only imagine in this cause adding a star, not deleting one.

This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publishers.

Profile Image for Candi.
608 reviews4,592 followers
January 9, 2015
A graduate of Cambridge with a math degree, Serena Frome is recruited to work for an intelligence agency during early 1970’s Cold War England. She has been assigned to operation “Sweet Tooth” and a young, promising new author, Tom Haley. This book is not your typical, fast-paced espionage thriller. This is a book about secrets, betrayals, and the power and artifice of the written word.

I got a bit bogged down with the more specific politics of the time, not being well versed in the early 1970’s Cold War era. However, as a great fan of McEwan’s novel, Atonement, I decided to hang on and give it a try. I particularly enjoyed the literary discussions and references throughout the novel, and was intrigued by the relationship between Serena and Tom. However, I never felt completely fascinated by the characters themselves. What did draw me in was Mr. McEwan’s style and the belief that he would surprise me once again. I was not disappointed! McEwan has a clever way of manipulating a reader and again makes me wonder about our roles as readers and writers. Can he really do that?!

I would give this book 3.5 stars, as it was not quite as well deserving of the 4 star novel, Atonement, which I felt to be very compelling.
Profile Image for Roger Brunyate.
946 reviews636 followers
August 14, 2016

I could see someone writing a three-star review of McEwan's latest novel almost as easily as a five-star one. But not I. For the moment the book arrived and I read the first paragraph, I breathed a huge sigh of pleasure, set aside the book I was already on, and set down to enjoy this one. And enjoy it I did, not least because it took me back to my own country and almost my own generation, and the heroine (Serena Frome, to rhyme with "plume," a bishop's daughter, mediocre mathematician, and avid reader) might easily have been the kind of girl I knew at Cambridge. Only luckier in love than I; a fairly active social life culminates in an affair with an older don who grooms her for the security services, and before we know it, she has been accepted as a very junior clerk in MI5. Having recently been disappointed by Simon Mawer's Trapeze, about a similarly sheltered girl recruited as a spy, I was deeply pleased that McEwan seemed to be doing it right.

But this is 1970 or so, the waning years of the Cold War, not WW2, and the mission that Serena is eventually given is cultural rather than military. She is to recruit a promising young writer named Tom Healy whose political views may make him a useful ally in the propaganda battle against the Soviets. I am sure one could raise all sorts of objections to this rather flimsy plot, but the moral focus of the novel soon shifts to the personal rather than the political level, as Serena falls in love with Tom, despite her own misgivings about having to lie to him.

So we have a political novel (with a painfully accurate portrait of Britain in one of its darkest postwar periods) as an underlay to an somewhat more interesting one about people and their feelings, the roles they play, and the lies they tell. But there is an even more significant layer laid on top of that: this is a novel about writers and the writing process, and in the end this will be the dominant theme. I must admit to some disappointment when I realized this; surely a writer has better subjects than the lint in his own navel? But the subject alone need not spell failure; instead of following the self-centeredness of Howard Jacobson's recent Zoo Time, might McEwan not reach the brilliance of Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter ?

And to a large extent he does. Serena reads several wonderfully inventive stories by Tom Healy which, even in compressed form, are worth the price of the book alone. The writer is clearly a genius, and so even more clearly is the writer behind the writer, McEwan himself. Readers familiar with his other work will note many echoes here of the author's previous novels. For McEwan is writing about the alchemy of writing itself, and the way an author must steal from life and even betray it in order to turn it into art. In the end, he will borrow a device from yet another of his novels, and there will be many who criticize him for it. But I found the ending intriguing and warmly satisfying. I did not mind sacrificing the logic of the spy story, or even the reality of some of the characters, if what I gained was the greater authenticity of a master of his craft exploring the magic of his own mastery.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
329 reviews270 followers
September 8, 2012
This is a Reader's book. It is about writing, about words, and about the power of words. It is about the pen being wielded in the same battlefields as the sword, and sometimes with the same amount of ignorance.

Serena is a young woman, and a babe in the woods when it comes to being an "operative" in MI5 back in the early 70s. She stumbles into her new career and is thrilled with the glamour she thinks must surely be just around the corner when one works for that secret department. She eagerly hopes for an assignment that will reach beyond the usual fate for MI5's women of the drudgery of secretarial work. So she embraces the chance to recruit, without his knowing, a young writer into a program secretly funded by MI5 to encourage literary culture favourable to their government's politics. It was a way to use unsuspecting writers to create the state's propaganda. In this world of intelligence gathering, there seems to be very little intelligence and a great deal of petty office politicking and paper polishing.
Serena is annoyingly simple and self-absorbed, and remarkably passive, to the point where all sympathy is eroded and one impatiently awaits and hopes for a spectacular downfall. She is just about the least convincing character of the book.

Literature and the publishing world have prominent roles, and there is frequent name-dropping of real authors, including McEwan's friend Martin Amis who has non-speaking parts in the book. McEwan is having a bit of fun with other background scenes too. One of the women in the MI5 office is moving up fast through the ranks, and Serena notes that eventually the woman would become director of MI5. Her name is Millie Trimingham -- note the similar rhythm and sounds to the real life Stella Rimington, who herself was moving up the ranks in that time and went to become director. And then on p 97, one of the characters says, "...sooner or later one of our own is going to be chairing this new Booker Prize committee." I imagine a mild grin on McEwan's face as he types that.
There was also a bit in one of the writer's stories within the book that was remarkably similar to the premise of the movie "Lars and the Real Girl". I would like to find some interviews with McEwan to see if he talks about some of these things.

It was interesting to learn that the setting of this novel is not so fictional. There have always been various arms-length or secret funding of arts organisations and individuals that will promote views sympathetic to those of the ruling classes. McEwan's publisher Random House has an interesting essay about this http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/fea... , and they describe the book as a "semi-autobiographical mash-up".

The opening chapters and the final chapter are the best of the book.
Profile Image for Lyubov.
359 reviews194 followers
October 21, 2018
Между мен и Макюън нещата продължават да не се получават. Това е четвърта среща с него и истински харесах само "Изкупление".

Възлагах големи надежди на "Операция "Сладкоугодник" заради интересния синопсис, но честно казано книгата ми беше скучна. До края очакваш да стане нещо наистина грандиозно или поне хитро и интересно, но уви, това така и не се случва. Оставям настрана факта, че главната героиня е досадна патка, това предполагам е част от авторовия замисъл. Едно нещо, освен сравнително скучния сюжет, обаче не мога да простя на носител на "Букър" - страшно клетите секс сцени. Много пъти сме си говорили с приятели, че истинският майстор на перото се познава по това как пише (или избира да не пише) за секс. Макюън има хубав, изчистен стил, но просто не се справя с описването на страстта. Когато някой ми започне с фразата "Време е големите момчета да си лягат", никога не следва нищо добре написано. После имаме сцена, в която той ѝ казва, че я обича и двамата свършват на секундата едновременно (здравей, Даниел Стийл) и вече накрая за моя радост решава да пропусне подробностите и да спомене секса с изречението "Той се погрижи за мен по един много специален начин" (бляк!).

Ще прочета и "В черупката", защото я имам с автограф и силно се надявам там сексът да е пропуснат. Ако и тя не ми хареса, с Макюън приключваме.
Profile Image for David Baldacci.
Author 276 books116k followers
November 15, 2013
Spies, the 1970s, the Cold War, romance, intrigue and a master storyteller to put it all together for us.
Profile Image for JenniferD.
1,006 reviews360 followers
January 4, 2016
the book started out really well for me and i was sucked right into the story. the book is dedicated to christopher hitchens. it's meta-fiction - many authors and books, as well as a book award (the austen prize, which is "better than the newly founded booker") feature on the pages of this novel. but...around the halfway/two-thirds mark...it got a bit...boring. which was disappointing - given the book also features mi5, spyishness and a bit of mystery. it could have been snap, crackle, pop-a-lopping off the pages, but it wasn't. and at the very end...i was unsatisfied. UN.SATISFIED. so...yeah. mcewan confuses me as my experiences with his writing are so up and down. i loved saturday and amsterdam but really loathed on chesil beach. for me, he's inconsistent not only from one book to the next, but even within a given book.
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