Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

In its first chapters, Sweet Tooth begins like Dickens’ David Copperfield.  Serena Frome (rhymes with Plume) tells of her unremarkable childhood and how she ends up working as a spy for Britain’s MI5. With her blonde and beautiful looks, she is a bit of a Bond Girl and wreaks havoc on the men around her.

A good all-around student, Serena devours novels and wants to do an English degree in a small university, but her housewife mother, in an uncharacteristic fit of feminism, tells her she has a chance of making something of herself by going to Cambridge and doing “maths.” 

She is in over her head at Cambridge so she reads to forget about her academic failure— and she likes her novels with a marriage plot and a happy ending. She also writes naïve anti-communist reviews for an underground magazine, gets noticed and has an affair with an older history professor and former spy who taps her for MI5, and her career is chosen for her.

It is 1970. Britain has a gas crisis, economic problems and Irish terrorist attacks, but MI5 is still fighting communists and comes up with an ill-conceived plot called Sweet Tooth to secretly give stipends to writers to influence the culture.  Serena must “sign up” T. H. Haley without him finding out that the money is from MI5. Of course, things get complicated when Serena falls for Thomas. Watch for the twist at the end to see if Serena gets her happy ending.

Sweet Tooth is a Cold War spy novel wrapped in a Victorian novel with little Jane Austen twists as Ian McEwan plays with the novel form in his post-modern take on storytelling. It is beautifully written, as are all his novels such as Atonement, Amsterdam and Saturday. He is one of the best authors writing today.