Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

An adorable girl becomes a spy

Serena Frome (sounds like plume) is a typical upper class English girl, with something of a head for mathematics. Her mother urges her to apply to Cambridge, where she turns out to be a mathematical mediocrity but also meets the intriguing older married professor Tony Canning. They quickly begin an affair, and she realizes he is also grooming her for a job at MI5.  Abruptly and hurtfully, Tony breaks up with her, but Serena does get the spy job. She quickly understands, however, that as a woman, she is nothing more than a glorified secretary. Soon she is once again embroiled in mediocrity. But then she assigned a project – the funding of promising writers in the hopes of their writing a pro Western pro capitalist book. Her project is young Tom Haley.  Instantly they feel a connection and become a couple, having great hot sex. Meanwhile, she spies on him the entire time. (An amusing part of the book is excerpts from his short stories). Tom’s new novel, however, is a dystopian view of capitalism. Not at all good for the cause. The secret gets out and Serena is fired and disgraced and Tom is just disgraced.

Sweet Tooth was highly readable, which wasn’t what I was expected. (It certainly didn’t suffer from any of my preconceptions about the English novel). I had never read Ian McEwan before and was expecting a bit of difficulty, but instead this novel was very approachable. Dare I say “middlebrow”? McEwan has great story telling abilities, as well as a satirical bite. Technically, the story telling was proficient, but there was a cost with the ambitious plotting. In some situations, the novel felt mechanistic. Slick and a little soulless. This is a historical novel and a big part was historical details. The miners’ strike and IRA bombs, the crumbling of Serena’s upper class notions. I enjoyed that part.

Can women be spies? Serena is one of the more bumbling spies of all time. And underneath I felt an authorial conviction that well of course women can’t be spies. They’re too stupid.  Deep down, Serena was merely an automaton serving up the plot. At the end came the twist, which infuriated me. Can’t a woman, I thought, even an imaginary one, be a woman? Ultimately, this book is a spoof about writing, I guess. Well written, but dopey, cheesey and infuriating.

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