When I Was Friends with Lani
Busy Week

Sweet Tooth (in which I give away all the plot twists)

Ian McEwan's novel Atonement is one of my favorites. Top-twenty-of-my-life favorites. I love everything about it, the story, the writing style, the time period, the setting, the characters' struggles. The letter that changes everything, Briony's blind mistake, and the realization that comes at the end.

None of the novels he's written between Atonement and now have grabbed my attention. Until last summer when I started reading reviews of Sweet Tooth. Hmmmm. I'm not generally a fan of spy novels, but London? and a bookish sort of espionage? I put myself on the hold list. And waited anxiously until April when I finally got to check it out.

And dove in.

Like diving into a pool with three inches of water.

It was, dare I say...boring. Here, let me spoil the plot for you by summarizing:

Serena Frome, who in the early 1970's is just finishing up her Math degree (even though she really wanted to study literature), has an affair with an older man who teaches her to think like an educated person—how to read the papers critically, etc, in an effort to groom her to get a job with M15. He then abandons her cruelly. With nothing else to do, she goes ahead and applies for an M15 position, which she earns. Eventually she gets to do something other than type memos and make files: she gets to work on a project called Sweet Tooth, wherein the British government secretly pays writers to be writers, in an effort to further literature that makes Britain look good. Serena's responsibility is Tom Haley, a writer of short stories who is just starting to garner attention. They meet, she connives him into signing on, and then they fall in love. She discovers that her old lover had also been a spy and had betrayed the government in some way or another, and that he set up the whole dumping-of-Serena thing because he was dying of cancer and didn't want to make her sad.

So she's in love with Tom Haley and torn about her real identity and not sure what to do about it. Tom wins the Austen award (I'm not even sure if that's a Real Thing or not) and, after a brief bout of writerly "I'll never write another novel" despair and an extended holiday break, starts writing another novel at a feverish pace. Serena broods. Then the news is leaked about Sweet Tooth, Serena doesn't know exactly what to do. She tries calling Tom and calling Tom but he never answers so she finally takes the train to Brighton (scenes of all their trysts) and finds him gone, their flat cleaned out, and a long letter.

The last ten pages or so of the novel are Tom's letter to Serena, detailing the fact that he had long ago discovered her secret spy identity. Seems that another spy who was also madly in love with Serena—but whom she rebuffed—got annoyed with her and so told Tom all the dirty details. At first he (Tom) was furious but then he realized: hey! This would make a great novel! I'll write it as a story from Serena's perspective!

Yep. It's the very same novel you've just spent two months wading through. Trying not to smack your forehead with.


I mean, I get it. It's clever, yes? It's clever in almost exactly the same way that Atonement is clever, all that subtext that makes you think about what it is like to read a novel while you are in the act of reading a novel. Except for Atonement isn't clever. It is gritty and gripping and so horribly painful that you can't put it down. The similar trick in Sweet Tooth felt, well, like a trick. Like a sort of writerly experiment; like tying a bow, but the fact that it's too neat of a package isn't really the problem. It feels show-offy. And especially strange when you think, OK, McEwan is showing us the wizard behind the curtain here, yes? And then you think about all the weird sex things in the book and it's just a little too much.

All of which might make me ask "why did I keep reading it?"

I stuck with it (it took me TWO MONTHS to read; I did read other books in between, but it was the book I would give as an answer if someone asked me "what are you reading now?") because, hello, it's Ian McEwan! And critics loved it! Certainly I'd finally get it, I kept thinking. Eventually I'd realize why it was so awesome.

Or maybe I just kept reading (slogging) because I don't want to have my Serious Reader card taken away. Does not loving an Ian McEwan novel mean I'm losing my grip on contemporary literature? That I can no longer take myself seriously as a librarian and/or a purveyor of Fine Writing? Or maybe it's proof that I've been reading too many young adult novels and my brain is reverting to Fluffy Reading Mode?

I don't know. Maybe it just means I'm not really an Ian McEwan fan. Just an Atonement fan. What I do know: I'm returning the dismal thing tomorrow and turning to the 24 other books I have waiting to be read.



oh no, i haven't read this except for TsWO MONTHS and "why did I keep reading it?" lol. i just started this book last night~! i will give it one honest week and see how it goes! :) i'll then come back and read this :)


It's not nearly as important as Atonement (big fan of that ad well) but I did ultimately like it for the very head smacking you describe. I like it when I know an author has organized a novel so well that something I think I'm reading is really a manipulation of theirs and they were playing me all along. Well....sometimes I love it. Other times, if poorly ha fled, I feel like tracking down certain authors and taking them on a joy ride of my own but I liked the 70s vibe and female perspective here.

The only other book of his I've read besides the two me ruined above is On Chesil Beach and that book made me throw away my fan club t-shirt. I hated it. So..not everything he does is wonderful, I agree.


And that is why I usually don't post comments from my phone. I hope you could interpret all the mistakes!


Oh thank you for posting all the secrets. I got to the part where they were giving her her assignment to spy on Tom and gave it up. But I still wondered if I would find the nugget of interest later on...kind of like in Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I hated for 140 pages and then raced through.

I love Atonement. But it seems to me, it's like my love of Possession or Time Traveler's Wife - some authors can't make lightening strike twice.


I don't know, I've not really loved the last two Kingsolver books, and I don't think I'm losing my grip on modern literature. Yet.


I知 not that much of a online reader to be honest but your sites really nice, keep it up! I'll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back down the road. All the best

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