I was very interested in reading this book as the author, Ian McEwan, has a long track record of writing interesting female characters, and 1970s Cold War London seemed an interesting setting for the novel.
“Sweet Tooth” chronicles Serena, a young British woman with a talent for math and a passion for reading, who is really nothing more than a consummate drifter. She drifts along in college, in and out of relationships, into a career with MI5 at the hand of an ex-lover who is really a traitor, drifts along her in her jobs duties, and eventually into a relationship with an asset of an anti-communist propaganda operation, the eponymous “Sweet Tooth”.
Not unlike the United States at the time, during the 1970s, England’s national securities weren’t particularly great jobs for the ladies who often were little more than secretaries. Serena follows this same path until she is pulled into this operation where security services seeks to anonymously sponsor talented authors, who in turn, hopefully write about the glories of a capitalistic society.
Serena is chosen for her prolific knowledge of literature and probably because she described as tall, blond, and not bad to look at. She poses as an agent of an arts foundation, nabs an up and coming author, and promptly begins an affair with him.
However, Serena isn’t particularly good at juggling the secret life of her job (yawn) against her personal life (double yawn). Really, this plot device is so played out when it comes to female characters, that if it weren’t for McEwan’s gorgeous writing, I would have stopped reading fairly early on in the novel.
In the end, Serena is found out, loses her job, and seems to have lost the guy. At this point in the story, you realize you don’t really know Serena particularly well. This is either because she comes across as being not very self-aware, which is understandable as she isn’t a very deep character to begin with, or it is just a fault of poor writing. However, this is Ian McEwan, master of the unforeseen ending, which I will not devolve here, but let me just say that it is, technically, a fault of poor writing, just not McEwan’s. …I’ll leave it to you to read and figure it out…
It’s a shame, really. Such a fascinating subject shouldn’t be reduced to a romance novel, which is what has occurred here. Secretaries have enormous potential in this genre, what with the amount of confidential material that passes through their hands, and the tendency men had/have to overlook the intelligence of the woman who fetches their coffee…
Still, it’s beautiful writing but hardly a spynovel. Enjoy. Or not.