Sweet Tooth

By Ian McEwan

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

British author Ian McEwan is one of the stars of the current literary firmament on both sides of the pond. Author of 14 novels, many of them best-sellers, he’s had his work successfully adapted for film (“Atonement’) and has won a boatload of prestigious prizes, among them a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Booker Prize, and a  Whitbread Award for his novels and a Somerset Maugham Award for a story collection. Once known as “Ian MacAbre” for his early deviant-sex-and gore-laden books, he has matured into a writer praised for his wit, sleek prose and intelligence. Kirkus Reviews, often parsimonious in its praise, calls MacEwan “Britain’s foremost living novelist.”

What is this book about?

Serena Frome (that’s pronounced to rhyme with room, not with Rome) looks back 40 years to her beautiful young womanhood, when she was cosseted by a college professor to undertake undercover “soft Cold War” work for Britain’s MI5 intelligence service. Not exactly a spy, she was instead tasked with befriending a young novelist who the agency wants to support, albeit surreptitiously, because his work is considered to be anti-Communist. Serena complicates her assignment by falling in love with her prey. But the book is not merely a tale of spying; it’s also about writing novels and the parallels that can be drawn between the necessary fictions of espionage and the fictions of, well, fiction.

Why you’ll like it:

Not just a book for those who like to read about spying, this tale is told with a great deal of sly wit and rueful reminiscence. The Observer likens it to a Russian nesting doll, with “stories within stories, ideas within ideas, even images within images” nesting one within another. While some reviewers found it sarcastically harsh toward women, others found it playful and a satisfyingly twisty read, loaded with “nonstop wisecracks” and campy humor.

What others are saying:

Says Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post: The Washington Post:  “Ian McEwan’s delicious new novel provides all the pleasures one has come to expect of him: pervasive intelligence, broad and deep knowledge, elegant prose, subtle wit and, by no means least, a singularly agreeable element of surprise. In Sweet Tooth, as elsewhere in McEwan’s fiction, things are not always what they seem to be, with the result that the reader is permitted to delight in the aforementioned pleasures while wondering all the while what, exactly, is going on.”

‘Drafted by MI5, [Serena’s} on the lowest rung when she’s asked to participate in a mission, codenamed Sweet Tooth, aimed at secretly funding writers whose views align with the government. Serena’s target is Tom Haley, with whom she foolishly falls in love. Then he writes the grimmest, darkest postapocalyptic novel imaginable. VERDICT The writing is creamy smooth, the ultimate trap-within-a-trap pure gold, and the whole absolutely engrossing, but poor Serena. She’s such a doof, and she’s a bit condensed too (by both characters and author), which leaves a bitter taste no matter how good the novel,” says Library Journal.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A subtly and sweetly subversive novel which seems more characteristic of its author as it becomes increasingly multilayered and labyrinthine in its masterful manipulation of the relationship(s) between fiction and truth…. Britain’s foremost living novelist has written a book–often as drily funny as it is thoughtful–that somehow both subverts and fulfills every expectation its protagonist has for fiction.”

“…McEwan has always been a good old-fashioned teller of tales, and the suspense and surprises in this book are well engineered…”Sweet Tooth” is extremely clever in both the British and American senses (smart as well as amusingly tricky) and his most cheerful book by far,” says Kurt Andersen in The New York Times Book Review.

When is it available?

“Sweet Tooth” has just arrived on the new book shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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