By Ian McEwan
"My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn't return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing."
So begins Ian McEwan's most recent, and rather deliciously readable, novel. Having set up the main plot points in its first paragraph, Sweet Tooth allows its protagonist—a beautiful mathematician with a self-professed soft spot for fiction both high and low—to flesh out her personal tale without haste, unearthing the details of her life during her prosaic Cold War stint with MI5.
Serena's secret mission, which goes by the code name "Sweet Tooth", is to recruit and fund a promising writer with leftist, pro-west leanings. Her target, a potential stand-in for the author himself given the parallels between their respective early works, is Tom Haley. Under the guise of a phony job title, Serena and Tom become lovers.
As the protagonist grapples with how to unveil the reality of her situation (i.e., "I am not exactly who you think I am.") without demolishing her romance, Sweet Tooth pursues the literary equivalent (i.e., "I am not exactly what you think I am."). As much as it can be marketed as a literary romance with an espionage spin, this is a book about the writing and the reading of books. It is about the inaccurate separation of fact and fiction, reality and perception. How do a reader's expectations and a writer's intentions impact one another? How is meaning constructed and by whom?
Given the protagonist's love of reading and her self-acknowledged opinions on the subject, the novel can play out its private plot straight-faced. Serena expresses her distrust of fictional maneuvering—e.g., authors "who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast"—as well as her belief that a tacit contract exists between reader and writer. "No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters," she suggests, "should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim."
In fact, Serena believes "that writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world…So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent."
It is through a series of such doublings in the story—Serena is the reader to Tom's writer just as we are the reader to McEwan's writer; the protagonist's clashing private and public selves; etc.—that the author investigates the grey and murky nature of concepts like identity and truth. He explores the artfulness of fiction, the crafted terrain we escape into with heavy expectations, regardless of whether these expectations are subconscious or considered. And he does this in a seemingly effortlessness manner.
McEwan is such a masterful writer that the ease with which this work can be read conceals the fact that it is more than a trifle. It is an engaging and thoughtful read, gracefully balancing its reflexivity with its unputdownability. If anything, the author's Achilles heel—his tendency to make his stories too calculated, too cerebral, too perfect—is still evident in this narrative account. But here it's tempered by playfulness: the book is as smart as it is fun.
While some could find the ending too clever for its own good, it avoids overstepping into gimmickry due to the wit and the craftsmanship of its creator. The denouement anticipates and addresses much of the criticism that could be tossed at the novel's straightforward, crowd-pleasing form and then roguishly twists it. In its unfolding, Sweet Tooth reveals not only the fictional biases and desires of its readers, but the pleasure inherent in reading—whether that reading is genre fiction, literary fiction or some combination of the two.
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