When I unwrapped this book on Christmas Day (another one! It was a good year), I was initially a bit hesitant. It was another present from my dad, and I know he was always keen for me to read Ian McEwan (I have The Innocent tucked away on my bookshelf for a reading session at some point in the near future) so I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, but really, the book’s marketing team needs to be sacked. The cover is horrible, resembling some awful, trashy, Mills & Boon-style fiction, and I’ve now learnt it’s fairly unrepresentative of the plot. For one, Serena (the novel’s protagonist) is beautiful but not, to the best of my knowledge, blonde, glamorous, or prone to wearing red dresses. The woman on the cover is casting her eye down at a man walking below her, but she doesn’t have that kind of relationship with any character. The entire image is bloody awful and it deserves to be on a different kind of book entirely, and coupled with the sickly name Sweet Tooth, I was actually a little embarrassed reading it on the tube, hoping people would look at the author’s name instead of the cover (apparently, being a book snob myself, I assume I am surrounded by literary fanatics at all times).
The blurb is just as bad. Here’s the lower excerpt, the description of the general direction that the plot is going to go in:
‘Serena is sent on a secret mission – Operation Sweet Tooth – which brings her into the world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life? And who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one.’
Putting aside the rhetorical questions (yuck), this description is horrifyingly close to a book I read when I was about 16, in which a character (a literary editor) meets a ‘promising young writer’ and falls in love with him. That particular book was so bad I wanted to gouge my own eyes out after reading it, and the memory of it made me feel wary when turning to Sweet Tooth. Woman meets tortured and arrogant writer, happens to be both a creative genius and male model in looks: it’s a pretty awful cliché and it pops up time to time in the lowest calibre of erotic novels. But still, my mind kept whispering ‘Ian McEwan’ and I felt confident that in the hands of a good writer, this might have a little more substance to it.
Did my opinion change once I read it? To some extent, yes. It definitely wasn’t the predictable, embarrassing tripe the blurb suggests it will be, thankfully free of agonising sexual tension coupled with an unrealistic life of espionage. McEwan is a great writer and the book moved along swiftly; it was an easy read and one I was happy to turn to during my commute (despite the awful cover). I’ll summarise it here – and be aware that this review does contain spoilers.
The book is narrated by Serena Frome (rhymes with plume, as we are told again and again), a Cambridge graduate struggling to make her way up the ranks of MI5 in the midst of the Cold War. That’s right, more Cold War espionage! Thankfully this was a little easier to understand than Tinker Tailor, but Serena is a bit lower down the ranks than George Smiley, so that’s probably why. We learn a little about her childhood and her university days – including a fling with a university professor who cruelly dumped her at the end of a summer tryst – before the book goes into more detail about her life in London. At one point she is summoned by the higher ranks of MI5 to join Operation Sweet Tooth – I have no idea why it was called that, but there you go – which is a plan to recruit up and coming writers who can promote the values of the agency. It’s supposedly a method that has worked before (Orwell is name-dropped). Serena is assigned to recruit a man called Thomas Haley under the pretence of being part of an arts foundation offering him a grant.
So recruit him she does, and pretty quickly they become a couple. The rest of the book details his rise to literary accomplishment while she struggles with the fact she is hiding the true source of his money, and the truth messily comes out once he was won a prestigious literary prize. Whilst she accepts that he will want to end their relationship, he actually writes her a letter (the end of the book) which suggests he knew the truth for a long time and was building up information, and is now going to write it all down in a book called Sweet Tooth – he goes on to directly quote parts of the McEwan book as suggestions to what he will write – and he plans to use this letter as the ending chapter. So we, as readers, learn that the book was not narrated by Serena after all, instead Tom Haley’s first-person depiction of Serena.
From what I know, McEwan loves this kind of twist ending. I haven’t read Atonement but I’ve seen the film (spoilers here! Look away now) and I remember at the end it’s revealed that the latter part of the film never actually happened, and in fact was fabricated by the protagonist who felt guilty about the way real life played out and wanted to make an act of, well, atonement by fictionalising a kind of happy ending. The ending of Sweet Tooth divided critics, although many considered it a stroke of genius. Personally, I found it pretty frustrating. We’d spent a whole novel learning and empathising with a certain character, only to find it wasn’t her narrating at all, but a character in the novel instead writing his depiction of her. How much did it bear ‘true’? Was that really what happened in the fictional confines of the story? These are questions that made me want to chuck the book away (although I expect others might reread it with joy), kind of like, as Brian from Family Guy describes this kind of twist ending, a ‘giant middle finger to the audience’.
McEwan writes a great female protagonist, it must be said. Serena is not necessarily the most wonderful or sympathetic character, but she is realistic – and it’s sad how often you don’t see that in a book by a male author. She is not prone to the girlish whims or predictable clichés you often find in female characters – and that, I believe, is the key to writing a good protagonist. Write her as a person, not a woman (or at least, not what you expect a woman to be). It sounds so obvious but it is something that must be stressed over and over again; men and women are not actually that different. (I feel particularly aware of this after finishing various drafts of my own book, which is narrated in first person by a young man. My dad, having read it, said he was surprised I would write from a male perspective – but all I thought was, why wouldn’t I? My male protagonist is a person, and I am a person, so I think I do an OK job of seeing the world through his eyes. I also think my dad forgot that he himself wrote a book following the thoughts and emotions of a 12-year-old girl, the cheek.) The only obvious male-written trope was that Serena was beautiful – a cliché that McEwan himself picks up when he has Serena read one of Tom Haley’s stories with a character in it who, as a woman, is beautiful – ‘of course’.
I’m not sure how much I liked the book. Whilst it kept me entertained, it’s one of those books that you put down without that comforting sense of satisfaction at the end, like the end of a hot meal. I expected there to be more drama, more tension, more storytelling in general, but instead the plot went along simply and ended rather simply, too. In fact, the blurb was more accurate than it initially seemed, summarising the entire book, and apart from the stupid dramatic reveal at the end, there was nothing in it that surprised me as a reader. I also have a real dislike for writers who write about writers (which I might have expressed before), simply because it’s so easy to do. McEwan’s depiction of Tom Haley seemed particularly smug and self-indulgent given that he was semi-autobiographical – the character had the same academic background as McEwan, and also wrote stories that McEwan himself wrote. In the book he was lauded as a genius wherever he went. A pet peeve in any form of literature for me (despite the ‘write what you know’ rule); this will always put me off a book.
I suppose it might make a nice TV drama, maybe an ITV two-parter, but so far it hasn’t been put on screen and I really don’t expect there’s enough substance for it to work as a film. I could be wrong, but we will see. It was only published in 2012, I believe, so there’s still room for it to make the jump – but judging by the poor marketing and the relatively bland storyline, I’d be surprised if a very good adaptation appeared any time soon.
Sorry Ian, you get three stars from me this time. But I have high hopes for your other works, and rest assured I’ll be visiting them soon.
[Coming next: The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter]