Sweet Tooth / Ian McEwan

The first novel I read by McEwan was Saturday and I was wowed by its simple yet insightful focus.  In the years since, I’ve read two other novels by McEwan, Amsterdam and Atonement.  While I enjoyed both, they did not hold a candle to Saturday.  The first review I read of Sweet Tooth was a negative one, but others that followed were complimentary, with some ranking it among the top novels of 2012.  While there is no denying that the book is a clever take on the Cold War thriller, with an unexpected twist ending, I found the story itself rather pedestrian.  McEwan is an author who knows how to construct interesting plots with true to life characters.  But his prose lacks the spark of poetry that would elevate his storytelling to a master’s level.  Sweet Tooth is set in the early 1970s, and Serena Frome is the story’s narrator.  Fresh out of university, this beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop is recruited to be an employee of MI5, an arm of the British intelligence service.  It is a troubled time in Britain, which is facing coal miner strikes, IRA terrorist attacks, and the remnants of Cold War paranoia.  Serena eventually becomes involved in an undercover operation code-named Sweet Tooth.  Her assignment is to recruit an up and coming author into accepting a Foundation grant (a front for the MI5) in hopes that he will write a novel critical of Russian communism.  Predictably, she falls hopelessly in love with the targeted author.  What unfolds is a relationship that the reader knows will not end well when her involvement with MI5 finally comes to light.  McEwan is to be praised for creating a highly readable novel with a twist that few readers will see coming.  But the novel itself felt rather thin to me, and its surprise ending a bit too tidy for my taste.  I certainly recommend it, with the caveat that it does not deserve to be ranked among the top novels of 2012.

 

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