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#18. Sweet Tooth

Impossible to write a comprehensive review of this book without giving away the ending. Impossible, for me, at least. I have a single coherent thought at the moment (I closed the book only minutes ago); it comes from one of McEwan’s characters: “There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust.” These lines stuck with me when I first read them; I took a minute to highlight them in my favorite purple ink. Now, after closing the book, their importance has come back to taunt me. With his last chapter, McEwan violates the very reader-writer contract that he so brilliantly describes – really, I can see him smirking as he types up the words, halfway through the book, knowing full well what is coming at the end – and I am left feeling – in a word – ill-used. But it is a master stroke; Sweet Tooth has an ending that you do not see coming at all.

Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) is a twenty-something year old who works for MI5. She is given a low-level assignment – to recruit an author, whom the Security Service will fund. The plan is to influence public opinion by determining which books get read and which don’t. The operation is called Sweet Tooth.

Serena is beautiful, of course. She falls for the author she is assigned, of course. But this is where the plot ceases to be formulaic. Before Serena recruits the author, she must first read his work. We are treated to summaries of the author’s short stories – all of them published works of McEwan’s, neatly distilled into a few, quick paragraphs. We wonder, along with Serena, how much she can learn about the author from his work. I found these passages especially delightful, because I have wondered oftentimes what my stories say about me or what my favorite authors’ stories say about them. There is an extraordinary chapter on probability – extraordinary, for me, because I have a background in both Math and English, and when Serena and Tom (the author) begin to argue about probability, I can sympathize with both their logics (Serena’s that of a Mathematician; Tom’s that of a writer). It was a wonderful case of discovering a character(s) who could speak with my voice.

Several story lines run alongside each other in this book: romance, espionage, politics, literary stuff, etc. This is not by any means an easy book. But McEwan uses old tricks: Serena reminded me, occasionally, of Atonement’s narrator, Briony – at the beginning of the book, she is sixty or so and is merely recounting the experiences of her youth; the narrative is sprinkled with letters (this is the case, also, in Atonement); the book’s overarching theme has to do with writing; finally, the surprise twist at the end, that authorial sleight-of-hand, had echoes of Atonement’s ending all over it. I adored Atonement. Placed alongside it, Sweet Tooth falls short. The passages, for one, are not nearly as beautiful. However, judged on its own merit, Sweet Tooth is the work of a master. There are few writers who can get inside of a character’s mind or write as sparsely and precisely as McEwan. There are also very few writers who can scrutinize their own work so objectively (remember, Tom’s stories are actually McEwan’s early work, and Tom, himself, looks and sounds a lot like McEwan). In short, I was impressed by this book, but not completely blown away by it.

3.8 stars

Categories: Ian McEwan
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