Summary and book reviews of Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth

A Novel

By Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2012,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2013,
    400 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Book Summary

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.

Excerpt
Sweet Tooth

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...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What is the significance of the epigraph taken from Timothy Garton-Ash's The File: "If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person"? How does it tie in with the major themes of Sweet Tooth and McEwan's method of characterization?
  2. Why do you believe that the author chose to set a contemporary novel in the England of the 1970s during the lingering Cold War? What contemporary or otherwise timeless themes is McEwan able to treat by adopting this political-historical backdrop? In Chapter 18, Pierre speaks to MI5 of "the softest, sweetest part of the Cold War, the only truly interesting part, the war of ideas." Does McEwan's novel seem to support this sentiment? How does it treat the subject of a "war of ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Sweet Tooth is, in part, 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).

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Media Reviews
The Daily Beast

McEwan's most stylish and personal book to date ... The year's most intensely enjoyable novel.

Publishers Weekly

Espionage fans won't find much that's credible, and fans of political farce might be surprised by a narrative less focused on lampooning MI5 than on mocking (mostly female) readers.

Library Journal

The writing is creamy smooth, the ultimate trap-within-a-trap pure gold, and the whole absolutely engrossing, but poor Serena. She's such a doof, and she's a bit condensed too (by both characters and author), which leaves a bitter taste no matter how good the novel.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Britain's foremost living novelist has written a book - often as drily funny as it is thoughtful - that somehow both subverts and fulfills every expectation its protagonist has for fiction.

Booklist

Starred Review. McEwan readers can rest assured that, in common with its predecessors, this novel has a greatly compelling story line braced by the author's formidable wisdom about—well, the world.

The Guardian (UK)

This isn't really a novel about MI5 or the cold war or even – despite the rather obviously ladled-on research about Heath and Wilson and miners' strikes and the IRA – the 70s. This is a novel about writers and writing, about love and trust. But more than that – and perhaps most incisively of all – it's a novel about reading and readers. It's about our own peculiar responses to fiction, to the strange, slippery magic of narrative.

The Telegraph (UK)

This new book is a genial, if flawed, foray into John le Carré territory – a wisecracking thriller hightailing between love and betrayal, with serious counter-espionage credentials thrown in.

The Independent (UK)

Sweet Tooth takes the expectations and tropes of the Cold War thriller and ratchets up the suspense, while turning it into something else.

Financial Times (UK)

Thoroughly clever ... a sublime novel about novels, about writing them and reading them and the spying that goes on in doing both ... McEwan has spied on real life to write Sweet Tooth, and in reading it we are invited to spy on him ... Rich and enjoyable.

The Globe and Mail

McEwan fans won’t be disappointed by Sweet Tooth, and newcomers to the author will be meeting him at the top of his game.

Reader Reviews
Cloggie Downunder

brilliant
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 ...   Read More

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...   Read More

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Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5)

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. Security Service CrestOther 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 ...

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