Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth‘Sweet Tooth’ by Ian McEwan tells the story of a young woman called Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) who is recruited by MI5 after she finishes studying at Cambridge University in the early 1970s.  She is assigned to an operation named Sweet Tooth in which a cultural foundation is set up to offer financial assistance to writers who speak out against communism.  However, her romantic relationship with one of the young writers involved in the project, Tom Haley, starts to complicate things. 

Labelled by many as a spy novel, I had expected ‘Sweet Tooth’ to be more about the world of espionage than it actually is.  Instead, it is about the kind of deception usually found in personal relationships which is what the story focuses on rather than the politics of the Cold War.  It is not a fast-paced thriller.  In fact, the plot unravels quite slowly throughout with the early chapters covering Serena’s early life and studies at Cambridge and the story doesn’t really get going until about half way through.  However, the ending is very satisfying and I enjoyed the build-up to it.

The main part of the story is about Tom Haley’s life as a young writer which Ian McEwan admitted is based on the early years of his own career during the 1970s.  I enjoyed the “writing about writing” element of the story more than I thought I would.  Normally, I would expect that kind of thing to be tedious or self-indulgent but I think McEwan managed to make this aspect genuinely interesting.  While I didn’t find the actual writing in ‘Sweet Tooth’ to be as rich and elaborate as it is in some of McEwan’s other novels, I still think he is a very sly writer.  In particular, Serena is a difficult character to figure out.  I found her to be neither particularly likeable or unlikeable which made it hard to decide how much to trust her account of events.

I have heard some quite mixed reviews of ‘Sweet Tooth’ but personally, I really enjoyed it.  I definitely preferred it to McEwan’s previous effort, ‘Solar’, which I thought was a bit hit-and-miss, mostly because of his misguided attempts at injecting deliberate humour into the story.  Having now read and enjoyed ‘Sweet Tooth’, I will investigate one of McEwan’s earlier spy novels,’The Innocent’, at some point.


Filed under Books

19 responses to “Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

  1. I have to declare an interest here, as I am a massive McEwan fan but I loved Sweet Tooth too. Solar was a little uneven I thought as was Saturday too but this is a return to form. I read The Innocent a very long time ago but I do remember it being v atmospheric . My all time favourite of his is still Atonement though!


  2. I have this tbr – must get to it soon, I like the sound of it more with every review I read.


  3. Thanks for this review, I am now quite keen to read it as I was put off by the espionage angle. I love Atonement it is one of my favourite books of all time!


  4. Hi, Little Blog, just a short note to say I have nominated you for a WordPress Family Award. I will posting about it shortly, so I wanted to give you a heads up. Thanks for all your hard work! Mindfulmagpie


  5. I recently read this and my thoughts were similar. I’ve read a few McEwan and liked them but I agree about Solar. I found that book very disappointing.
    Thanks for the review.


  6. Thanks for this, I have very mixed reactions to McEwan. I often feel the discomfort you mention of not being sure about the main character. I also find the prevailing dark outlook on life a little depressing. However, I am usually knocked out by his writing skills. For me Saturday was the best – but then I’m fascinated by brains.


  7. Thanks for this review! Have been going through an Ian MacEwan phase lately and just finished ‘Atonement’, The Comfort of Strangers’ and ‘Enduring Love’. I was wondering what to read next… I think I’ll try ‘Sweet Tooth’ 🙂 Which others would you recommend?


  8. I bought this book last month, it was a kind of love at first sight and now I’ve heard of a few bloggers I follow are reading it too! I’ll come back once I’ve read it to discuss it in more depth 😀


  9. I totally agree with you about both Sweet Tooth and Solar. The latter I found massively disappointing and somewhat pretentious. Admittedly it reflects the pretentions of the protagonist, but that leaked through too much for my liking. Sweet Tooth I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s slightly lighter than his usual style, but I loved it all the more for that. You are utterly spot-on in your comments about Serena’s character not arousing strong emotions either way and I think that suits her role in the book. Great review.


  10. Ian McEwan is massively hit and miss for me. Loved Atonement, hated Enduring Love, loved The Cement Garden, hated this. I actually found the entire thing very self-indulgent and predictable and, overall, dull. I read to escape and learn, not to read about some average woman in an uninspiring job and mediocre relationship. Sigh.


  11. so it’s basically a love story instead???


  12. I love Ian McEwan’s stuff and really enjoyed Sweet Tooth. You should definitely try The Innocent, although as one of his earlier books I think it falls into the Ian Macabre category – but it’s very well written with strong characters and some dark humour.


  13. Pingback: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre | A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

  14. I really enjoyed this too – and am going to look at the other one you mention, which i don’t know. Thanks


  15. Pingback: Nutshell by Ian McEwan | A Little Blog of Books

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