This is an elegant novel about a spy, not a “spy novel.” The book starts with this sentence. “My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty year ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”
Set in the cultural Cold war scene of the early 70’s, Sweet Tooth is a literary spy novel–that’s literature and its relationship to life, politics, and the imagination. Serena Frome enters the espionage world on a covert mission to combat communism by infiltrating the intellectual world. Although there are no car chases, guns blazing, or poisoned cocktails, we do see the psychological toll that being a spy can take, never knowing who can be trusted. Ian McEwan is a master at smooth prose and well crafted intelligence. However, despite a few genius twists and turns (especially the ending), the novel would feel weak in plot for anyone looking for a page turner.
If you are new to Ian McEwan this is not a novel to introduce you to this author. Better to pick up Atonement or Saturday for that. But if you are familiar with his works, this is a good one because he has put a lot of himself into the novel that would be recognizable to his fans. The story itself is about a writer and the writer’s uni, publisher, awards, peer authors, and even his earlier short stories (ones he wrote during the time period of this novel) are all based on McEwan’s own life. The only thing he says is that, “unfortunately a beautiful woman never came into my room and offered me a stipend.”