Wednesday, April 3, 2013


I think there was part of me that always wanted to be a spy. Years ago I turned down an offer to work at NSA, and perhaps I was secretly expecting a tap on the shoulder from CIA. That may explain why Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth appealed to me. It's the late 60's and the tap on shoulder of Cambridge grad Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) comes from her older lover, a Cambridge professor. She is hired by MI5, the domestic counterespionage service. (Note to the esteemed Mr. McEwan: if you want your character's name to be pronounced Frume why don't you just spell it that way?).

Like virtually all the female employees, Serena's job is as a clerk to the male officers. But her love of literature, despite a degree in math, lands her an assignment to recruit a young fiction writer to unknowingly use his talents to advance the agency's anti-Communist position. She falls for him, it's mutual, and they tumble into a wholly unprofessional but enjoyable affair. She keeps her real job a secret from him, and you just know that's going to come back to haunt her.

McEwan is too good a storyteller to let this unfold in a predictable way. It's never clear until the very end who's lying, who's being deceived, who's in the loop and who's out of it. Serena is the book's narrator, and she looks back from a distance of forty years, but she lets the story reveal itself as the events occur.

I do have one quibble with McEwan. In several of his recent books - “Saturday”, “Solar” and this one - there is a 'smartest man in the room' kind of character who bears more than a passing resemblance to the author, and his female characters seldom seem as smart as the males. Maybe he'll remedy that the next time out. He's too good a writer to be weighed down by a stereotype.