Ian McEwan offers an unexpected bonus for bibliophiles in his latest book – Sweet Tooth. To embellish the main action of the beautiful young British spy, Serena Frome, whose reading taste ranges from Jane Austen to Jacqueline Susann, McEwan includes short stories seemingly unconnected to the main plot; each could stand alone while subtly revealing the underpinnings of the main character.
Reluctantly majoring in mathematics at Cambridge, Serena nurtures her love of novels and writes for an undergraduate newsletter. A middle-aged undercover agent, posing as a history professor, becomes her lover and recruits Serena into the British internal intelligence service after graduation – not a position of glamour or prestige for a woman in the 1970s. Her literary bent is noticed at the agency and she is promoted from file clerk to spy. Her first assignment is monitoring a fiction writer, Tom Haley, with an inclination to anti-communism. As preparation, Serena reads Tom’s short stories – clever extras provided by McEwan.
Of course, she falls in love with her target, and, you may now refer back to the book’s opening paragraph…
“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost 40 years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within 18 months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”
The spy story is secondary to the author’s opinionated rambling, but the historical data, references to authors, and the intrigue of the deception may keep you reading. Much of the rumination involves Serena’s interaction with her love interests: Tom, her suborned writer; Tony, her mentor and duplicitous double agent; Max, her elusive supervisor. As Serena’s affair with Tom gains momentum, the possibility of her being discovered as an undercover agent increases.
If you remember the surprising conclusion to McEwan’s Atonement, the ending to Sweet Tooth will be a disappointment in comparison. The final deceit is uneventful, with universal betrayal as the theme. I had the same feeling when On Chesil Beach ended – regret; I may take a break from McEwan’s anticlimactic thrills for a while.