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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
History, Science & Current Affairs
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
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.
Ian McEwan's latest novel is an exercise in deception - an engaging book that's as much suspenseful drama as it is romantic love story. At the center is Serena Frome, who after graduating from university as a math major (but with a reputation for being a lover of novels) lands a desk job with the intelligence agency, MI5. Early on Serena receives an assignment: She must pose as a representative for an arts foundation and begin to cultivate a young writer. Keeping her identity from him proves challenging. In this excerpt, Serena has met her novelist and has boarded the train home. She has not gotten a promise from him that he will work with her, and worse she has found herself attracted to him. While she rides, she reads one of the stories that he has published.
I was the only passenger in my carriage on the early afternoon train back to London. As we left the South Downs behind and sped across the Sussex Weald, I tried to work off my agitation by walking up and down the aisle. I sat for a couple of minutes, then I was back on my feet. I blamed myself for a lack of persistence. I should have waited out the hour until his teaching was over, forced him to have lunch with me, gone through it all again, got his consent. But that wasn't it really. I'd come away without his home address. Nor that. Something may or may not have started between us, but it was just a touchalmost nothing at all. I should have stayed and built on it, left with a little more, a bridge to our next meeting. One deep kiss on that mouth that wanted to do my talking for me. I was bothered by the memory of the skin between the shirt buttons, the pale hair in a whorl around the edges of the navel, and the light and slender childlike body. I took up one of his stories to reread but my attention soon slipped. I thought of get- ting off at Haywards Heath and going back. Would I have been so troubled if he hadn't caressed my fingers? I thought I would. Might the touch of his thumb have been entirely accidental? Impossible. He meant it, he was telling me, Stay. But when the train stopped, I didn't move, I didn't trust myself. Look what happened, I thought, when I threw myself at Max.
Sebastian Morel is a teacher of French at a large comprehensive school near Tufnell Park, north London. He is married to Monica and they have two children, a girl and a boy aged seven and four, and they live in a rented terraced house near Finsbury Park. Sebastian's work is tough, pointless and ill-paid, the pupils are insolent and unruly. Sometimes he spends his entire day trying to keep order in class and handing out punishments he doesn't believe in. He marvels at how irrelevant knowledge of rudimentary French is to the lives of these kids. He wanted to like them, but he was repelled by their ignorance and aggression and the way they jeered at and bullied any of their number who dared to show an interest in learning. In this way they kept themselves down. Nearly all of them will leave school as soon as they can and get unskilled jobs or get pregnant or make do with unemployment benefit. He wants to help them. Sometimes he pities them, sometimes he struggles to suppress his contempt.
He is in his early thirties, a wiry man of exceptional strength. At university in Manchester, Sebastian was a keen mountaineer and led expeditions in Norway, Chile and Austria. But these days he no longer gets out onto the heights because his life is too constrained, there is never enough money or time and his spirits are low. His climbing gear was stowed in canvas bags in a cupboard under the stairs, well behind the Hoover and mops and buckets. Money is always a problem. Monica trained as a primary school teacher. Now she stays at home to look after the children and the house. She does it well, she is a loving mother, the children are adorable, but she suffers from bouts of restlessness and frustration that mirror Sebastian's. Their rent is outrageous for such a small house in a dingy street and their marriage of nine years is dull, flattened by worries and hard work, marred by the occasional rowusually about money.
Excerpted from Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. Copyright © 2012 by Ian McEwan. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
Sweet Tooth is set in the early 1970s during the Cold War; its primary concern, however, is not the war of passive aggression characterized by nuclear weapon stockpiling and brinksmanship that made most of the headlines we may remember today. Instead, it focuses on what one character calls "the softest, sweetest part of the Cold War, the only truly interesting part, the war of ideas."
Specifically, it focuses on the short but eventful career of Serena Frome, a lovely young Cambridge graduate with a degree in mathematics and a passion for literature who is recruited for Great Britain's MI5 intelligence service shortly after graduation. There, after paying her dues processing paperwork and filing, she is unexpectedly assigned to an undercover mission nicknamed "Sweet Tooth."
Just as the CIA (much to their later embarrassment) used their own funding to underwrite the work of creative artists sympathetic to American interests, the British intelligence agencies sought out and sponsored the work of authors whose writing was critical of communism and supportive of capitalism. Serena's mark is named Thomas Haley, a young Spenser scholar and promising short story writer and journalist, who might have the makings of a novelist if only he had the necessary time and financial resources.
Posing as the representative of an innocuous government foundation, Serena shows up at Haley's office, prepared to make him an offer...but unprepared for just how hard she falls for both the man and his writing. Serena's involvement with Haley, of course, puts her career in jeopardy, but it also causes her to adjust her expectations about fiction, about the writers she idolizes and from where they draw their ideas. Writing is "almost like cooking," Serena reflects. "Instead of heat transforming the ingredients, there's pure invention, the spark, the hidden element."
The responsibilities and methods of the realist fiction writer are primary concerns for Ian McEwan, so perhaps it's not surprising that much of Sweet Tooth can be read as a particularly lively and playful exploration of these preoccupations. It can also be read as an extended experiment in the pleasure - and limitations - of a male author writing at length from a female protagonist's point of view. Without giving too much away, McEwan is playing a bit of a narrative game with the reader by adopting this point of view which, incidentally, is a welcome contrast to the dour tone of his previous novel, Solar.
It's also simultaneously a fictionalized memoir of the literary scene in the 1970s (based quite heavily on McEwan's own experiences as a university student and as a young short story writer; the novel includes cameos by a handful of his friends and mentors) and a breathy piece of escapist spy fiction. McEwan is not John le Carre, however, and so the most intriguing aspects of McEwan's novel are not about espionage per se, but rather about the ways in which writers of realistic fiction, by mining their own lives and the lives of those around them, are, in themselves, the craftiest and most artful spies of all.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl
Rated of 5
by Cloggie Downunder
Sweet Tooth is the 14th book by British author, Ian McEwan. Serena Frome’s story is narrated in detail essentially from the time she first gets involved with the man who will usher her into a position in MI5, in the early 70’s Britain. Serena is a compulsive reader of fiction and her first “secret mission” is to cultivate promising young author, Tom Haley. Their mutual attraction ensures they step beyond the boundaries set by her superiors, and before long, things start to unravel. While a working knowledge of British politics of the seventies plays would enhance the enjoyment of this novel, it is not requisite. McEwan presents the reader with a delicious irony when Serena tells us she distrusts any kind of fictional trick, something of which McEwan is a master. Once again, he fools the reader but, whereas I felt cheated by it in Atonement, this time I revelled in it. The end has the reader wondering: just whose words are we actually reading? The answer is very simple: those of a brilliant novelist.
Rated of 5
by Becky H
The spy story that isn't
In Sweet Tooth Ian McEwan has used lots of lovely words and strung them together in lots of lovely ways. Unfortunately this does not make a lovely story. It is in many ways a deadly bore. To say that Sweet Tooth is tedious is an understatement. There are too many incidental characters and incidents that have no relevance to the story as red herring or plot line or character development. Perhaps what McEwan really wrote was a very good short story when what he (or his publisher) wanted was a novel. Is the writing good? Yes. Does that make me like this book? No. I finished the book, but I didn’t enjoy it. This is the first Ian McEwan book I have read. I doubt I will read another.
This novel may have been a very good short mystery or short romance. It just doesn’t work as a longer novel. The main character – Serena Fromme – is, to put it quite bluntly, an unlikeable twit. Unfortunately for the reader she is surrounded by more unlikeable twits, self-absorbed males, pompous asses and other assorted denizens of Cold War London. Unlike Serena I actually enjoy the process of reading. I like to savor the characters, imagine the outcome of the plot, thrill at the word usage and become involved with the unfolding of the story. The one character I DID like was Shirley. I wanted to know more about her – why she left MI5, how she came to become a successful beauty, why she made such a generous offer to Serena, her interactions with Max and Tom….. Yet Shirley was given little to do except tie up loose ends in a most unsatisfactory manner.
I found some of the structural parts of the book to be annoying. First I HATED the occasional italic phrases. They were simply a distraction. I also found the insertion of Tom’s current works annoying. They were too long and detailed. Although both of these were explained in the last chapter, it did not help me in the actual reading enjoyment of the book.
I have thought about recommending Sweet Tooth to another. First, no one should ever recommend a book without first reading it cover to cover. In recommending this book I would feel compelled to state why I didn’t like it. Secondly, I would only recommend this book to someone who was also a voracious reader and one who was willing to devote many pages before disbanding reading. Thirdly, I would NOT say this was a spy novel, or a romance, but instead present Sweet Tooth as a demonstration of literary devices.
I might toss Sweet Tooth into the mix of possible book group choices (we usually choose our 10-12 books from a group of 20-24 books recommended by members who have already read them). We have chosen books in the past that were only lukewarm in their recommendation. It often makes an interesting discussion as members tell why and what they didn’t like and how they might have changed the book.
Just as the United States has separate bureaus for internal and international intelligence and security (the FBI and the CIA), so too does the United Kingdom. Serena Frome is recruited to be part of the Security Service, the internal counter-intelligence and security agency, more commonly known as MI5 (for Military Intelligence, Section 5). Its sister agency, responsible for international intelligence, is the Secret Intelligence Service. In the 1930s SIS adopted the title of MI6 as a "flag of convenience", becoming one of 17 British military intelligence units during WWII. Other now defunct units included MI1 (code breaking), MI12 (censorship), and MI14 (Germany desk). MI6 fell out of official use years ago but many writers and journalists still use it when referring to SIS.
In Sweet Tooth, Serena and her MI5 colleagues spend a great deal of time investigating communism as well as terrorist threats posed by the Irish Republican Army. Today, according to its website, nearly 90% of MI5's work deals with counterterrorism efforts. In the decades since the setting of Sweet Tooth, MI5 and SIS's partner intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), have gained additional prominence as a source for combating potential cyber terrorism. GCHQ was originally founded to intercept and decrypt signals and communications in the early twentieth century, Just like the United States' intelligence agencies, though, the UK's continue to evolve to address the ever-changing technologies and associated threats to national and international security.
By Norah Piehl
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