Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

sweet toothI’m a huge Ian McEwan fan. Finishing this book means that I’ve read all his novels (and collections of short stories and plays and books for children and no, my name isn’t Misery). As you would assume, my expectations were high. Has the novel managed to meet them? Read the review to find out!

Serena Frome is into literature but she’s also good at maths. Pushed to study the latter by her mother, she graduates from Cambridge with no clue about what to do with her life. Fortunately, this beautiful girl meets a gentleman who moulds her into a perfect secret service candidate. Will Serena conquer the sexist world of spies and successfully infiltrate the literary world or will she fail miserably?

To encounter a female character who’s a spy in literature is exciting for most women. There aren’t many of them and if they exist, you mostly find them in children’s or teen fiction. Certainly not on the pages of books by serious writers like Ian McEwan. However, the author seems to have a liking for female protagonists. “Atonement”, “On Chesil Beach” or his second to last book, “The Children Act” are good examples of this tendency. I usually can relate to his characters but I did struggle with Serena. She reminds me of a child lost in the mist. Her actions are not well thought through, she falls for one wrong man after another as a twisted version of your typical femme fatale. Serena doesn’t seem to take fate into her own hands and things just happen to her. Perhaps that’s the reason why the novel ends where it ends…

“Sweet Tooth” does fail as a love story, mostly because Serena is more of a plastic doll than an actual character. The novel also fails as a spy novel. There were moments when I couldn’t stop myself from reading further but most of the time I was forcing myself not to skip parts of it. I’m not really interested in reading lengthy descriptions of secret service procedures and neither are other people who choose to read spy novels. A typical reader of this genre is looking for swift action, even if unrealistic. Ideally, it should be so fast, the reader doesn’t have time to stop and question what’s been happening. McEwan gives us instead a kind of lengthy semi-philosophical divagation on the topic of secret service. Can and should the government control artists? Well, no, hello, communism? I don’t need a whole novel to get that it’s morally questionable.

Do the ideas in the book have any merit? From my selfish point of view, yes. I was quite interested in McEwan descriptions of non-existent writings of his fictional character that are sometimes uncannily similar to his actual work. There’s also the beautiful manner in which McEwan puts sentences together. In other words, the plot isn’t captivating but his style as always is. Does it mean I’d recommend this book to anyone? I don’t think so. A McEwan fan won’t stop reading his novels because of this below average book. I could, however, see someone starting their adventure with the author with “Sweet Tooth” and getting discouraged from exploring his work any further. This would be such a shame! We all have bad days so someone who’s been writing for the last 50 years has the right to write a bad novel. McEwan virgins should rather have a go at “Atonement”, “Enduring Love” or his short stories.

Have you heard of Ian McEwan, Dear Rinser? Who’s your favorite writer?


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