Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sweet Tooth - Ian McEwan

It's no secret that Atonement by Ian McEwan ranks as one of both my favorite books and my favorite movies.  After all, you know me - nothing thrills me like an unhappy ending.  Side bar: What is wrong with me?

Last year, when McEwan released his latest work, Sweet Tooth, I immediately added it to my On Reserve list.  I had never read another book by the British author.  I figured myself long overdue.  I had to find out if the remainder of his work lived up to Atonement.  As with many books on the list, it took me about a year to finally work my way around to the book.  So was it worth the wait?

Sweet Tooth follows the story of Serena Frome, a young British woman in the 1970s.  She attends Cambridge, majoring in mathematics but loving books.  She has an affair with a stodgy professor.  He leads her to MI5, where she is recruited after finishing school.

After working as a low level employee in the sexist office, Serena is given an assignment.  She is to recruit Tom Haley, a novelist.  The goal is for Haley to become wildly popular writing subtly anti-Communist literature and thus sway the Cold War.  MI5 serves as his benefactor, though Haley thinks Serena represents a non-governmental organization.  Things get complicated when Serena and Tom begin an affair.

The book does not move quickly.  Like Atonement, it is dense and layered.  The only real twist comes at the end when (spoiler) Tom discovers the true source of his income and Serena's true profession.  As it turns out, Tom has been the one writing the book (Sweet Tooth) all along.  Suddenly, the whole novel written in Serena's voice takes on a new meaning.  She has not told us her story; Tom has investigated her story and transcribed it as a parting gift to her.  It is his next novel, written on the pay roll of MI5. This trick rather reminded me of the end of Atonement, when it is revealed that Briony has written the whole story.

I enjoyed the book though it took me a while to chip away at it.  McEwan is not an author whose work you sit down and read in entirety over the course of a Sunday afternoon.  He requires undivided attention, even when it seems nothing is happening.  After all, at the end, every word is suddenly rich with new motivation.  Despite a worthwhile ending, there are considerable sections which require some determination to get through.

I still claim ultimate loyalty to Atonement.  Sweet Tooth caused me to question my love for it a bit.  I wonder, do I love Atonement because I had its depth spelled out for me visually in movie form?  Would I have enjoyed Sweet Tooth more if I had seen a film version previous to reading the book?  Ultimately, I think not.

Sweet Tooth is a good book, just not, in my opinion, a great one.  Perhaps the world of Cold War espionage holds less connection for me than that of a family's tumultuous relationships.  The characters and issues in Atonement captured me, while those in Sweet Tooth were merely good enough.  It probably is not fair of me to compare two of McEwan's works. They are independent of each other and deserve to be judged individually.  I am definitely interested in reading more of McEwan's books to see how they compare.  Was Atonement his masterpiece or par for the course?

Pages: 320
Date Completed: August 24, 2013

Have you read multiple books by the same author?  How did they compare to each other?  Were you disappointed in the second book?  Or pleasantly surprised?


  1. I was curious about this one when it first came out, but it slipped off my radar for some reason. I think McEwan is a wonderful writer, but Atonement is my favorite of his that I've read so far.

    1. I just don't know how you can beat Atonement! Poor McEwan...I feel a little badly that I'll forever be judging his work by that standard.