I’m always suspicious of book blurbs that compare one writer’s books to another’s. On the cover of Sweet Tooth, a blurb says “Jane Austen meets John Le Carré meets John Barth.” To my shame, I can say nothing about John Barth (except that I attempted once without success to read The Sot-Weed Factor), but Sweet Tooth has nothing to do with Austen except that she is mentioned in it and has only a few similarities with Le Carré but none of the extreme tension. Generally speaking, I don’t really believe that the work of one writer is like that of another, and certainly no one is like Ian McEwan.
Serena Frome is a smart, beautiful young graduate from Cambridge in the early 1970’s when she takes a job as a very minor employee of MI5. She has been groomed for this position by her much older mentor and lover, Tony Canning, a don. She is a naive young woman from a relatively privileged background who loves literature in a fairly superficial way (speed reading through stacks of novels) but has been pushed into mathematics because her mother wants her to accomplish something “important.” Unfortunately, she finds her facility at mathematics to be superficial too, unequal to the level of her classmates, and only earns a third. Her only distinction at school is some breezy articles written for a student magazine about what she is reading, and they lose their audience as soon as she writes more seriously about political issues.
Really, her mother seems much more eager for her to accomplish something than she is. She is somewhat shallow and eager to please, more interested in her relationships with men than in a career. She also has a tendency to pretend she knows about things that she doesn’t.
After carrying on a fairly innocent flirtation with a coworker, Max Greatorix, and having him break it off, Serena gets her big break at work. MI5 is setting up an operation called Sweet Tooth, the intention of which is to quietly fund young writers who have political beliefs sympathetic with those of the government in a subtle propaganda war against communism. Serena is told that the money will simply give the chosen writers more freedom to work, and the operation will not interfere in any way with their work.
Serena, with her voluminous reading habits but flimsy background of the series of articles she wrote in college, is asked to pronounce on the work of Tom Haley. She loves his stories and is soon given the job of recruiting him, the only fiction writer in the operation. The project seems to go swimmingly, although Tom is soon writing about themes the government would not approve. But Serena tells herself that they were not to influence Tom’s work, and anyway she is having an affair with him.
Their relationship is born in deceit, though, since Tom has no idea that his grant is coming from MI5 or that Serena is his handler. As their affair grows more serious, Serena struggles with when to tell him. Soon something else is going on that Serena doesn’t understand. As with any good spy story, you don’t always know who is lying to whom.
Since this is McEwan, we know the story will not be straightforward, and again he presents us with a great example of an unreliable narrator and a foray into metafiction. We also get a light evocation of England during a difficult period of miners’ strikes, economic and political instability, IRA bombings, and the dawning hippy and drug cultures. Although by no means a Cold War spy thriller, the novel provides plenty of plot twists.