Thursday, March 14, 2013
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
As a child and college student, Serena Frome (rhymes with Plume) read anything and everything without discrimination. For this reason alone I expected to adore this book. She argues fervently that Jacqueline Susanne's Valley of the Dolls is as good as anything by Jane Austen. (For the record, Valley of the Dolls is a pretty good book.) An affair with an older man leads to Serena being recruited by MI5. The job is less impressive than it sounds - it's the early seventies and (most) female agents are relegated to more or less secretarial work. With Sweet Tooth, Serena gets to do a more than type and file.
Sweet Tooth is the code name of MI5's secret mission to fund writers with a certain world view. It is propaganda but more subtle. Serena's role in Sweet Tooth is mostly to be herself - a pretty girl who likes to read and who can talk about books with intelligence. (Aside from getting her recruited by MI5, the older man with whom she had the affair took it upon himself to improve her literary taste such that they are more conventional.) She poses as the representative of a charitable organization that is looking for writer to support and acts as a liaison between the writer and the foundation. Tom Haley is the writer that Serena is assigned to. Serena prepares for the mission by reading Haley's short stories and journalism. She falls in love with the writing. Then she falls in love with the writer.
I have to admit I was a little bored by Sweet Tooth. The parts of the book about reading, writing and writers I loved. I also enjoyed the description's of Haley's fiction. In between the great passages about reading and writing there were long stretches where I was waiting for something to happen. The other aspect of this book that bothered me was that although there is a female protagonist, much of this book seems to revolve around how other people (especially the men in Serena's life) steered her life in one direction or another. First at her mother's insistence, she studies math at college even though she prefers English. A long time reader of fiction, Serena's older lover molds her into a different kind of reader and thinker and chooses a career path for her. And not to give anything away, but the end of Serena's Sweet Tooth mission is also due to men. (This is not a spoiler - In the opening paragraph Serena/Ian McEwan reveals that Sweet Tooth ends badly for Serena and her lover-writer.) Very few decisions seem to be of Serena's own choosing and that was disappointing.
This is the second book by Ian McEwan that I've read, the first being Atonement. I am not sure what I think or how I feel about his writing yet, I'll let you know after I've read more of his work. One thing I can say, his books always give me pause and make me think long after I've turned the last page.