Kim's Reviews > Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
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it was amazing
bookshelves: audiobook, all-time-favourites


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.
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Reading Progress

September 14, 2012 – Shelved
October 13, 2012 – Started Reading
October 14, 2012 –
20.0%
October 17, 2012 –
50.0%
October 19, 2012 –
80.0%
October 20, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Your review makes me consider trying McEwan again. Well-written and informative, as usual, Kim.


message 2: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary  the Bookworm I'm anxious to read it now. Or perhaps I'll take your advice and try the audiobook. I spend most of my life with my iPod as it is.


message 3: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Jeannette wrote: "Your review makes me consider trying McEwan again. Well-written and informative, as usual, Kim."

Thanks, Jeannette. It's certainly an interesting novel. Just so as you're on notice, there are some sex scenes, but generally without excessive plumbing detail.


message 4: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Gary wrote: "I'm anxious to read it now. Or perhaps I'll take your advice and try the audiobook. I spend most of my life with my iPod as it is."

I couldn't live without my iPod now. If you havn't heard Juliet Stevenson narrate an audiobook before, you're in for a treat. I'm pretty much a squeeing fangirl!


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Kim wrote: "Jeannette wrote: "Your review makes me consider trying McEwan again. Well-written and informative, as usual, Kim."

Thanks, Jeannette. It's certainly an interesting novel. Just so as you're on not..."


Thanks, Kim. I'm not surprised, but I always like a heads-up. :)


message 6: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne This will definitely go on my list . I've never tried an audio book. Are new books readily available ? While you listen, are you always in the car? If not, are you doing something else or do you just sit in a chair? I'm sort of afraid I'll play solitaire or try to multi task. Is that alright ? Does exercising or sewing distract the listener?


message 7: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Suzanne wrote: "This will definitely go on my list . I've never tried an audio book. Are new books readily available ? ..."

Suzanne, I've been listening to audiobooks regularly for about two years. Mostly I listen while I commute to work or when I'm otherwise alone in the car or on public transport. I also listen while I excerise and occasionally while I cook or do other work around the house. I don't listen while I'm just sitting down.

I started by listening to books I'd already read, and then branched out to unfamiliar books once I decided that I really liked the experience. I can easily listen to books in situations in which I would previously have been listening to the radio or to music. I can't listen to a book and read something else at the same time.

Mostly I download books from Audible.com, to which I subscribe. Audible has a huge range. I occasionally buy books from other sources as well and while I don't use the library to get audiobooks, I know a lot of people do just that. Books which are in the public domain are also available from sites such as librivox.org. The books are read by volunteers and the narration is of variable quality. I much prefer professionally narrated books, but that's a personal thing.


Petal Eggs I had never read a McEwan book before this one - they just never appealed. As I was reading it I thought that Tom Haley was so believable because he was McEwan. Glad to read from your review I was right. I found Serena to be plain annoying, I thought that all the feminine cliches had been written into her, but nonetheless I did enjoy the book, just not quite as much as you.


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

Kim Petra X wrote: "I found Serena to be plain annoying, I thought that all the feminine cliches had been written into her, but nonetheless I did enjoy the book, just not quite as much as you...."

I agree, Serena was very annoying, although I warmed to her somewhat because she was caught in a bind, albeit of her own making, and she recognised that fact. I suspect that listening to the book rather than reading it helped me enjoy it more than I otherwise might have done.


message 10: by Claudine (new) - added it

Claudine I admit to the same reservation about Ian McEwan after feeling very uncomfortable reading http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/68.... I read it with a book group and I did enjoy our subsequent discussion. I am looking forward to this book.


message 11: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Claudine wrote: "I admit to the same reservation about Ian McEwan after feeling very uncomfortable reading http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/68.... I read it with a book group and I did enjoy our subs..."

I haven't read Enduring Love yet, Claudine. I may read it someday, although I think I'll probably read Atonement next. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did, but even if you don't, you can be confident that you won't find it disturbing!


message 12: by Matthew (new) - added it

Matthew Ojoduma I like to read it. I'll post my take on it as well. I'll appreciate if anyone could have a read of Kiss of a Black Woman, you can download the ebook on Amazon. Comments on the sample chapter alone will be appreciated.


Maciek Great review of the book! It's interesting to see how many readers approach it. I wasn't too thrilled - probably because I prefer the earlier works by McEwan which are more grisly and disturning.


message 14: by Jemidar (last edited Dec 04, 2012 07:16AM) (new) - added it

Jemidar Jama wrote:

"Hi! Dear,
I am Tracy I want to be a special friend in your life, and would like to know more about you. You'll know more about me as time goes bye, but please let it be something real and not fake.send me your email contact it will Enable me to send my picture to you privately in your box , Will be glad if you can send me your pictures through the above mentioned addresses.

my Email jama_tracy@hotmail.com

Tracy "


ROTFLMAO!!

Kim, now there's an offer you can't refuse ;-D.


message 15: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Flag it!


message 16: by Jemidar (last edited Dec 04, 2012 09:14AM) (new) - added it

Jemidar I have.


message 17: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Me too. And on other reviews as well. Usually, these come to my inbox.


message 18: by Jemidar (new) - added it

Jemidar I think I got this exact one in my inbox just a few weeks ago.


message 19: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan I did as well. It's never ending, although Goodreads does delete the accounts as they see them. Unfortunately, they can't prevent the new accounts that get started, not until their posts are flagged, and you have to leave up the posts and private messages. If you delete them, Goodreads can't see them, even if they've been flagged. It's a pain.


message 20: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim I also received the same message (or a very similar one) as a PM a few weeks ago. I've flagged it too. Given that you can't just post a comment on a number of reviews simultaneously (and this one is on more than one review), you have to wonder at the spammer's strategy. I can't begin to imagine why she (??) thought that I'd be a good prospect!


message 21: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Kim, I think they just message as many people as they possibly can. I don't think they bother learning about them to see if they're easy marks.


message 22: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Maciek wrote: "Great review of the book! It's interesting to see how many readers approach it. I wasn't too thrilled - probably because I prefer the earlier works by McEwan which are more grisly and disturning."

Thanks Maciek. I don't really know why I took to this novel as much as I did. I didn't really expect to. It may just be that the audiobook format really worked for me. I love listening to Juliet Stevenson. I'd listen to her reading the bus timetable!


message 23: by [deleted user] (new)

Lisa wrote: "Kim, I think they just message as many people as they possibly can. I don't think they bother learning about them to see if they're easy marks."

A friend and her friend both got the email today, as well as this post on their reviews of Sweet Tooth. *weird*


message 24: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Since they can keep making new accounts, this will always be an issue. As long as we flag them, Goodreads acts immediately to delete their accounts. Weird, indeed. They must get some hits or they wouldn't keep using the tactic.


message 25: by Lee (new) - added it

Lee Awesome review, Kim! I love his writing and look forward to reading this.


Elizabeth I too have just finished listening to Juliet Stevenson read this to me. Your review says much that I feel, but much more articulately than I would have!

Thanks for taking the care to express it so well. Especially: "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." Most helpful synopsis of Sweet Tooth I've read.


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