*Disclaimer: this review contains mild-to-medium spoilers. Anyone who has read Sweet Tooth will know that it’s virtually impossible to reasonably discuss the book without revealing particular plot points.
I’d like to start this review by saying that this is the first Ian McEwan novel that I have read. I saw Atonement (film) and it put me right off reading the book. Friends rave about his other books, but it will take a while before I pick up another Ian McEwan novel after reading Sweet Tooth. Don’t get me wrong — McEwan is a great writer, and I found his writing style elegant and accomplished. But Sweet Tooth was so dull and grey, I honestly couldn’t wait until I was done with it.
I suppose this was to be expected. After all, it is set in Cold War 1970s England. And I find the Cold War to be a particularly dreary and uninteresting part of modern history, so the odds weren’t in McEwan’s favour from the beginning. Our narrator is Serena Frome, a Cambridge-educated avid reader who, thanks to her lover at the time, lands a job with M15 straight out of university. The Cold War British government is working hard to fight communism through various programs and initiatives, one of which is Sweet Tooth: a program offering financial assistance to anti-communist writers. Central to the success of Sweet Tooth is ensuring the authors receiving funding don’t uncover the truth about the source of the money.
Serena’s involvement with Sweet Tooth revolves around Tom Halley, a talented emerging author. Recognised by M15 officials as someone with potential, Serena is tasked with meeting Halley and determining his suitability for funding. Serena does a whole lot more than this. Not only does she assess Halley as an appropriate candidate to receive funding, she wastes no time in starting a romantic relationship with him. Halley knows nothing of Serena’s M15 involvement and believes her to be a scout of the benevolent organisation sponsoring British writers. As is the case when secret identities are ultimately revealed, Serena’s relationship with Halley has far deeper consequences than either of them could ever have imagined.
I can’t decide if Sweet Tooth was clever or irritating. I’m leaning more towards irritating for two main reasons, the first of which is McEwan’s characterisation. From the start, I hated Serena. Although I’m sure she is an accurate portrait of the well-educated and wealthy women of that generation, her actions and motivations prevented me from caring even the slightest bit about her. In particular, the emphasis and importance she placed on the opinions of the men she chose to surround herself with presented her to me as nothing short of pathetic. She seemed incapable of making a decision by herself, and was constantly pushed in certain directions with little-to-no resistance. Not once did a key moment in her incredibly lacklustre life appear to come from an independent thought of her own. She successfully ruins a job she has no real capability to succeed in with not one but two romantic affairs thanks, in large part, to her ability to misread every situation she is finds herself in. The host of strong supporting male characters were painfully British, pompous to almost laughable heights. I know this was the 70s, but gosh McEwan, WE GET IT.
There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust.
The second main issue I have with Sweet Tooth is the climax. After 300-odd pages, everything is flipped on its head and, as a reader, I had no idea what to believe anymore. This is always an inherent risk of changing the underlying narrative structure so close to the end of a book, and I felt completely cheated. What was real? More importantly, what was not real? I lost the ability to trust the author as a reliable source of information, and in a book that frustrated me beyond belief as it was, this was not a positive development. A part of me wanted to go back and re-read considerable chunks of the book in a half-hearted attempt to look for clues, but the part of my brain telling me to accept it, bitterly, and move on ultimately won.
On the positive side, and there is a positive side, McEwan’s writing style was utterly delightful. The quality of the content was questionable, but his talent as a writer is undeniable. Sweet Tooth is also, at its heart, a book about books. Serena and Halley are ferocious readers (though, McEwan presents S as a low brow, pulp fiction reader and H as the high literary aficionado) and added to this, Halley is a fiction writer. Throughout Sweet Tooth, we are presented with one/two page summaries of Halley’s stories, and most times I felt myself wishing I were reading one of his stories instead. (The irony that Halley’s stories actually reflect McEwan’s early work is not lost on me, I assure you.) The parallels between McEwan and Halley are interesting, and I did find it quite novel that real-life literary figures from McEwan’s career play also small roles in Halley’s journey to success.
Don’t delude yourself into thinking this a spy novel: it most certainly is not. It’s a psychological love story blended with a meditation on literature and the power of the written word to affect social circumstances. This sounds tolerable. But it was a combination of the vapid and painful protagonist, the heavy-handed politics, and the dull and dreary backdrop of Cold War England that ruined this book for me, and I can’t help but think it would have made a much better movie.