Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth

Book - 2012
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During the Cold War in Britain, Serena Frome is recruited to work as an intelligence agent for MI5 and her first mission involves getting close to Tom Haley, a promising young writer. Despite her best intentions she starts falling for Tom, with potentially dangerous consquences.
Publisher: Toronto : Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2012.
ISBN: 9780307363343
Characteristics: 323 p.


From Library Staff

debwalker Jan 01, 2014

London early 70s, and a young Cambridge grad gets caught up in cold war subterfuge. Love, betrayal, and a clever twist at the end.

From the critics

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Mar 07, 2019

This is a book with a flaw. It purports to be about propaganda and literature: both literature as a form of propaganda and propaganda in other forms. Our protagonist, Serena (!) is first educated about ruling class propaganda in The Times of London and elsewhere by her left-leaning tutor, who turns out to be a Russian agent. Characters spin their stories in their own way and have their favoured versions of the truth. Serena gradually learns to doubt the surface messages. She is brought into MI5, and becomes part of a low-level propaganda campaign, providing a disguised income to Tom, a promising novelist who writes about freedom and creativity. Part of Serena’s indoctrination is a review of the efforts of the Comintern and CIA propaganda branches to support their own literary favourites. In the end, the whole scheme comes apart, and as readers we have to re-evaluate the story of Serena.
Serena is more than a bit naïve, a shallow but voluminous reader who slowly learns to appreciate more literary writing. She is taken with Tom’s creative stories, sometimes quite moved by them, although the summaries she recounts seem rather bizarre, more like academic writing exercises than actually convincing stories. Serena falls for Tom and they have an affair, although she worries about how to tell him that she is a fraud who has been undermining his professional credibility. When Serena’s ex-lover brings Tom a different story that undermines her credibility, Tom turns the tables on her and makes up his own story. In the end, we see how creative story-telling is more successful than bureaucratically inspired propaganda, even in the hands of a literary writer.
All this is very post-modern, questioning the meaning of storytelling and point-of-view, which could be an interesting twist, although hardly a new idea.
The flaw, which I felt before reaching the various plot turns, is that it’s just not that interesting. The characters are sketched with little detail or depth, and their crises are not engaging. The plot seems to have so little at stake that it’s not interesting. The occasional background details of the social unrest of Britain in the early 1970s actually sparked more interest for me than the central story line. So it undermines the message that creative fiction is better than government propaganda when the creative fiction that I’m reading feels flat and boring.
On a side note, the story line seems to challenge the notion of artificial limitations on writers and that writers can’t appropriate someone else’s voice. McEwan writes in the voice of a woman as if to show that it can be done successfully. In fact, the voice of Serena seems convincing enough as a young woman in 1970s London, but the fact that the story she is describing isn’t very successful actually seems to support the notion that writing in the voice of another is inherently limiting and incomplete.
My reaction to the book is totally subjective, and perhaps others would react more deeply to the intensity of the love affair and the inherent conflict and loss that threaten it. But in the end, it seems to me to be another thought experiment that doesn’t really work rather than a successful novel. (For a thought experiment that does work even though much wilder than this one, I both enjoyed and bought into Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union.)

Nov 15, 2018

Very clever and very well written in the usual McEwan manner. Not as good as Nutshell but way better than Amsterdam. The ending in Amsterdam, I found, was farcical, whereas the ending in Sweet Tooth is very clever but both books share his good writing

Apr 26, 2018

Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an American bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. The year is 1972. Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency. The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the flight goes on, especially in the cultural sphere.
Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a “secret mission” that brings her into the literary world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life, and who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage: trust no one. (Description slightly edited from the hardcover book flap, presumably a description provided by the publisher.)

I decided to read this book after Daniel Silva's House of Spies, which I had read immediately preceding this book, briefly mentioned the book.

This book is interesting and obviously well written; however, it's very “talky,” and nothing really happens.

Wait. That's really not fair. Things do happen, except they're slow to develop, which probably why Sweet Tooth is such an interesting book and why Ian McEwan is such an interesting writer. I'd like to read some more of his books.

Mar 26, 2017

One of those books where I didn’t try too hard to *get it* and simply let it wash over me – a mostly enjoyable experience with this loosely-espionage love story. But then, I like wily, craft-y writers who loop back with metafiction, even though we think we know where we’re headed with the outcome stated in the opening paragraph. Writers writing about literature and writing. And secrets, deception, betrayal, seduction, who’s who thrown in. Fun. "… the awesome power of the imagination …" (p.194)

Dec 20, 2016

A good read that can be annoying at times. Doesn't leaving you feeling much, but it's fun.

Jun 25, 2016

This English author tells a story involving a young attractive girl who becomes a spy for the secret police in England.
Following her experience in investigating a writer professor whom the government suspects is a socialist, is a very compelling read.

Jun 25, 2016

Classic McEwan, with a big twist I just didn't see coming. Left me reeling for days. Highly recommend.

Jun 09, 2015

An interesting story but ultimately disappointing. A young woman - beautiful & smart - meets a university professor through her present boyfriend, begins an affair, is groomed for her MI5 interview, affair ends, gets hired, an infatuated co-worker works against her ... I didn't really feel much character advancement, tension, or involvement with the people. Not his best.

Mar 03, 2015

A couple of other reviewers have noted that the review they were writing in their head while reading this novel was undermined by the final chapter in which all the cheesy pretensions and irritating literary devices are explained. I have to admit that as I nodded in agreement with them, I also realized how sad it is that I read novels now with some percentage of my attention given over to what I will write in my inevitable Goodreads review.

So, the "review I was writing in my head" was going to focus on themes of deception and inauthenticity. It would have explored Serena's empty, self-delusional identity as she glides about with very little intention or ambition in almost utter mediocrity through university, a trite affair with a married professor, and into the dull, bureaucratic, linoleum-clad corridors of MI5 where she remains "a clerical officer of the lowest grade." Dull, but, as she says, "I really was pretty."

Pretty Serena is then given a chance to shine: Operation Sweet Tooth, an ill-conceived and misguided propaganda project thought up by petty agents more concerned with getting a leg up on MI6 than making any real progress in the Cold War. She immediately and quite predictably falls for her "agent," Tom, a young writer who showed up on someone's radar as an anti-Communist conservative but who, in reality, is about as much an empty vessel as Serena. Serena spends a lot of time reading Tom's stories - and recapping them in irritatingly lengthy passages - before deciding that she's probably going to fall in love with him. After they meet and, predictably, fall in love, the two drink a lot of Chablis and have a lot of sex throughout the duller middle parts of the book until events transpire that cause Serena to reflect on the nature of deception. "I knew that before this love began to take its course, I would have to tell him about myself. And then the love would end. So I couldn’t tell him. But I had to."

And there we would have had the central theme - Tom is in love with Serena, but Serena is not who he thinks she is. And without Tom, Serena is an anonymous government clerk with no personality. They need each other. If that had been it, this would have been a heartbreaking love story with the trappings of a spy novel and some weird, overly long, summaries of Tom's short stories.

When the other shoe drops, it is not as expected and everything that was irritating and puzzling and ... just weird about the first 90% of the book suddenly makes sense.

Feb 22, 2015

Good read.

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Dec 02, 2013

...was deliberately and systematically boring me to drive me away. It was insensitive of me not to notice, poor fellow, he was having to overreach himself and it was not a good performance, hopelessly overdone.

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