Joe Valdez's Reviews > Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
26876584
's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction-general

** spoiler alert ** 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 (view spoiler).

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 (view spoiler). 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.
60 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Sweet Tooth.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

January 17, 2016 – Shelved
January 17, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
March 27, 2017 – Started Reading
March 27, 2017 –
page 1
0.32% "My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) 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."
March 27, 2017 –
page 6
1.91% "It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say "Marry me" by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between--I gave them all the same rough treatment."
March 28, 2017 –
page 6
1.91% "What famous novel pithily begins like this? The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. Isn't it punchy? Don't you know it? I caused amusement among my Newnham friends studying English when I told them that Valley of the Dolls was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. They laughed, they teased me for months."
March 28, 2017 –
page 17
5.41% "In the evenings he liked to play opera on an old gramophone and though he urgently explained the characters and intrigues of Aida, Cosi Fan Tutte and L'Elisir d'Amore, those reedy yearning voices meant little to me. The quaint hiss and crackle of the blunted needle as it gently rose and fell with the warp of the album sounded like the ether, through which the dead were hopelessly calling to us."
March 28, 2017 –
page 59
18.79% "How can one understand the inner life of a character, real or fictional, without knowing the state of her finances? Miss Frome, newly installed in diminutive lodgings at number seventy St. Augustine's Road, London North West One, had less than one thousand a year and a heavy heart. I managed week to week, but I did not feel part of a glamorous clandestine world."
March 29, 2017 –
page 63
20.06% "Writers are said to have superstitions and little rituals. Readers have them too. Mine was to hold my bookmark curled between my fingers and stroke it with my thumb as I read. Late at night, when the time came to put my book away, my ritual was to touch the bookmark to my lips, and set it between the pages before closing the book and putting it on the floor by my chair."
March 30, 2017 –
page 94
29.94% "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."
March 31, 2017 –
page 130
41.4% "Through the plate-glass windows on the first floor I could see figures, players and spectators, hunched over banks of table football. The students' union, surely. The same everywhere, these places, reserved for the exclusive use of lunk-headed boys, mathematicians and chemists mostly. The girls and aesthetes went elsewhere. As a portal to a university it made a poor impression."
April 3, 2017 –
page 165
52.55% "By five o'clock that Saturday afternoon we were lovers. It didn't run smoothly, there was no explosion of relief and delight in the meeting of bodies and souls. It wasn't ecstatic, the way it was for Sebastian and Monica, the thieving wife. Not at first. It was self-conscious and awkward, it had a theatrical quality, as if we were aware of the expectations of an unseen audience. And the audience was real."
April 4, 2017 –
page 172
54.78% "I had helped bring freedom to a genuine artist. Perhaps the great patrons of the Renaissance felt the way I did. Generous, above immediate earthly concerns. If that seems a grand claim, remember that I was feeling a little drunk and lit up by the afterglow of our long kiss in the bookshop basement. We both were."
April 4, 2017 –
page 189
60.19% "He bought me presents--a silk jacket, perfume, a soft leather briefcase for work, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, novels by Ford Madox Ford, all in hardback. He also paid for my return rail fare, which was well over a pound. At the weekends I forgot my scrimping London life, my pitiable food hoard in one corner of the fridge, and counting out the change in the mornings for my Tube fare and lunch."
April 5, 2017 –
page 181
57.64% "He worked on an Olivetti portable on a green baize card table pushed into a corner. He would get up in the night or at dawn and work through until nine or so, when he would come back to bed, make love to me, then sleep until midday while I went out for a coffee and a croissant near the Open Market. Croissants were a novelty in England then and they made my corner of Brighton seem all the more exotic."
April 5, 2017 –
page 251
79.94% "Months and then years later, after all that happened, whenever I woke in the night and needed comfort, I'd summon that 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."
April 5, 2017 – Finished Reading
April 6, 2017 – Shelved as: fiction-general

Comments Showing 1-34 of 34 (34 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Carmen Allow me to be your first like, Joseph. :)


Carmen Great review, but this book made me extremely angry. I still haven't forgiven it. >.<


Sharon I knew very little about what this book was about; I wanted to read it only because I'm a fan of McEwan. I'm even more excited to pick it up now after reading your review, and skimming Jenny's (didn't read the spoiler). I'm super curious about the twist ending (Carmen looks pissed above)!


message 4: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Beautiful review, Joe. This is the best breakdown I've seen of this novel and it now makes me interested in reading it. I've had and removed the book off my already-too-long tbr list a few times now before coming across your review, but if I see it at a used bookstore, one of my favorite venues for browsing, I'll just get it, thanks to you.


Jenny Joe, this is another excellent review. Once again, I'm astounded by your ability to recount details from the novel without giving anything essential away. I'm really glad that you also enjoyed this novel, and I hope that it leads you towards other McEwan books (hopefully Atonement, my favorite by him so far!).
Thank you again for the doubles read, and thanks for the link to my review and the nod to my reviews in general :)


Carmen Carmen is definitely pissed above!


message 7: by Joe (last edited Apr 07, 2017 07:31PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Carmen wrote: "Allow me to be your first like, Joseph. :)"

You can recruit me to do anything but read a romance novel, guapa.

Carmen wrote: "Great review, but this book made me extremely angry. I still haven't forgiven it. >.<"

What made you angry about it?


message 8: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Sharon wrote: "I knew very little about what this book was about; I wanted to read it only because I'm a fan of McEwan. I'm even more excited to pick it up now after reading your review, and skimming Jenny's (didn't read the spoiler). I'm super curious about the twist ending (Carmen looks pissed above)! "

That's the best way to go into a book, Sharon. I hope we've all made you curious to give this a try.


message 9: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Cheryl wrote: "Beautiful review, Joe. This is the best breakdown I've seen of this novel and it now makes me interested in reading it. I've had and removed the book off my already-too-long tbr list a few times now before coming across your review, but if I see it at a used bookstore, one of my favorite venues for browsing, I'll just get it, thanks to you."

Thank you so much, Cheryl. You're always so charitable with your comments about my writing. Your support and encouragement means a lot to me. The longer we've known each other, the more common ground I seem to find in fiction with you. This novel is another chip we both can both cash.


message 10: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Jenny wrote: "Joe, this is another excellent review. Once again, I'm astounded by your ability to recount details from the novel without giving anything essential away. I'm really glad that you also enjoyed this novel, and I hope that it leads you towards other McEwan books (hopefully Atonement, my favorite by him so far!)."

I had a fun time with our doubles read too, Jenny. Your spoiler review was useful because I got a completely different impression of the ending than you did. I would like to read Atonement soon. Thank you again for being such an oak with your kindness and support.


message 11: by Bianca (new) - added it

Bianca Great review. I've read my first McEwan in March and I was completely captivated by his cleverness and way with words. So I shall add this one, hoping to come across it.


message 12: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Bianca wrote: "Great review. I've read my first McEwan in March and I was completely captivated by his cleverness and way with words. So I shall add this one, hoping to come across it."

I couldn't have said it better myself. "Captivating" is the appropriate word for McEwan's work in this novel. Thank you, Bianca. I hope my endorsement helps carry you away.


Carmen Joseph, the twist ending was the worst. It ruined all the good will and good feelings I had up until then. And I was loving the book. Then I found out (view spoiler) What a crock of shit. And what a way to completely destroy the respect I was building up for McEwan in writing an (view spoiler) I'm rabid.


message 14: by Joe (last edited Apr 08, 2017 11:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Carmen wrote: "Joseph, the twist ending was the worst. It ruined all the good will and good feelings I had up until then."

Yes, and if I was the author receiving this type of feedback from my girlfriend or female advisors, I might have rethought the ending. That said, I read the last few pages twice and don't know if there was a twist or not. I like to think that (view spoiler) I think you could write an espionage novel, linda.


Jenny Sorry to jump in here, but Carmen, wouldn't it be true either way? Since either (view spoiler)? I know it's still controversial, but I think that's what makes it genius. Either way, (view spoiler).


message 16: by Debbie (new) - added it

Debbie Oh, shoot, I can't read what I'm positive is a great review because of spoilers! But so glad that you gave it 5 stars--since I want to read all books by MacEwan. Thanks for the add!


message 17: by Joe (last edited Apr 08, 2017 02:41PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Debbie wrote: "Oh, shoot, I can't read what I'm positive is a great review because of spoilers! But so glad that you gave it 5 stars--since I want to read all books by MacEwan. Thanks for the add!"

Thank you so much, Debbie, for liking my book report sight unseen! I do not discuss the book's ending or even the second half in my review. I hid two details which verge into spoiler territory, but I'm not sure if when you click on a review flagged "spoiler" whether those areas remain hidden. My practice is to read nothing about a book I'm interested in. Please add this one to your docket. I would really love to hear your opinion.


Carmen
Yes, and if I was the author receiving this type of feedback from my girlfriend or female advisors, I might have rethought the ending. That said, I read the last few pages twice and don't know if there was a twist or not. I like to think that (view spoiler) I think you could write an espionage novel, linda.


Joseph, I have no doubt (view spoiler)

That's my main beef.


Carmen Sorry to jump in here, but Carmen, wouldn't it be true either way? Since either [Ian McEwan wrote Serena, or Tom did (hide spoiler)]? I know it's still controversial, but I think that's what makes it genius. Either way, [the whole thing is fabricated by a male author,, and the fun is that you never know which author without circling back on the question (hide spoiler)].

Jenny, I thought about that! :)

But no. It is completely different. If Ian was (view spoiler)

So, in my opinion... it's very different.


message 20: by Joe (last edited Apr 08, 2017 06:04PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Carmen wrote: "That's my main beef."

Well-stated, linda. You offer a thought provoking analysis that adds to my enjoyment of the novel, as always. It doesn't seem like there are enough novels about kickass women for McEwan to (view spoiler).


Carmen Joe wrote: "Carmen wrote: "That's my main beef."

Well-stated, linda. You offer a thought provoking analysis that adds to my enjoyment of the novel, as always. It doesn't seem like there are enough novels abou..."


Yes, exactly! And I was SO happy and SO excited with the book... I was ready to give it five stars and praise it! But then he pulled that ending on me. Ugh!


Jenny Carmen wrote: "Sorry to jump in here, but Carmen, wouldn't it be true either way? Since either [Ian McEwan wrote Serena, or Tom did (hide spoiler)]? I know it's still controversial, but I think that's what makes ..."

I totally understand what you mean now. It's not the fact that (view spoiler). And that is completely different, so I understand your frustration, especially as Joe says, strong female characters are already so rare. I just wrote that in a comment at the bottom of my review of The Girl with All the Gifts. Carey created some amazing female characters...and he's a male writer!!
By the way, does anyone else think (view spoiler).


message 23: by Joe (last edited Apr 09, 2017 10:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Jenny wrote: "By the way, does anyone else think [all these spoiler tags must be REALLY annoying to anyone else following this conversation??"

I expect spoilers when I start reading about anything on the Internet. Best solution is to not click if I don't want plot details spoiled, but I've also seen a few folks on Goodreads go off their feed about not being warned. You just convinced me to stop using spoiler warnings in comments, Jenny. It does ruin the flow of the conversation.


message 24: by Debbie (new) - added it

Debbie Help! I love spoiler alerts! Don't stop using them, please! I have a bunch of friends who don't spoil anything, and I try to do that myself. And I sort of know who is likely to give away critical stuff in a review, so either I don't read their review until I've read the book, or if I do read their review, I just go to the last couple of paragraphs--that's usually safe. I've been pissed many times that the effin' blurb has ruined the read, so I even try to avoid the blurb. I like to go into a book completely blind if I can.


Carmen Jenny wrote: "Carmen wrote: "Sorry to jump in here, but Carmen, wouldn't it be true either way? Since either [Ian McEwan wrote Serena, or Tom did (hide spoiler)]? I know it's still controversial, but I think tha..."

EXACTLY. Thank you, yes, that's exactly it!!!


Carmen Joseph - Please don't stop using spoiler tags! It's important! I would hate to have a book ruined just because I love reading the comments under your book reviews!


message 27: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Debbie wrote: "Help! I love spoiler alerts! Don't stop using them, please! I have a bunch of friends who don't spoil anything, and I try to do that myself. "

Carmen wrote: "Joseph - Please don't stop using spoiler tags! It's important! I would hate to have a book ruined just because I love reading the comments under your book reviews!"

The public has spoken. I will continue to honor spoiler tags if it means alienating two of my favorite readers.


Carmen LOL Thanks, Joseph! Having the ending of a book you're looking forward to ruined is a terrible feeling. I appreciate your spoiler tags.


message 29: by Debbie (new) - added it

Debbie Carmen wrote: "LOL Thanks, Joseph! Having the ending of a book you're looking forward to ruined is a terrible feeling. I appreciate your spoiler tags."

Ditto. Pshew, Carmen, we can chill now and continue to savor Joe's review treats!


Carmen Yay! :)


Jenny Joe wrote: "Jenny wrote: "By the way, does anyone else think [all these spoiler tags must be REALLY annoying to anyone else following this conversation??"

I expect spoilers when I start reading about anything..."


Joe, I agree with Carmen and Debbie! I also know to avoid certain posts on various sites just in case, but the courtesy is still appreciated. I just found it funny to keep seeing our tags and wondering what other people thought about them!


Jenny Carmen wrote: "Jenny wrote: "Carmen wrote: "Sorry to jump in here, but Carmen, wouldn't it be true either way? Since either [Ian McEwan wrote Serena, or Tom did (hide spoiler)]? I know it's still controversial, b..."
Thank YOU for helping me see it in a different way! Sometimes I forget to look at all the angles, especially in a book I really like.


Carmen LOL You're welcome, Jenny! Happy to chat about books anytime. :)


Jenny Same here!


back to top