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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.
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.