Anyone watching me might have thought I was consulting a reference book, I turned the pages so fast. And I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for something, a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favorite old shoes.
I knew that Read More for Four would be easy in November. There were two books coming out that I couldn’t wait to read, one of which was Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. I was quite enamored with Atonement when I read it, and his new book sounded equally intriguing.
Fresh out of Cambridge in the early 1970s, Serena Frome is recruited to work for MI5. She imagines a glamorous position within British intelligence, but instead languishes at a desk job for months. Then opportunity knocks in the form of a Cold War initiative called Sweet Tooth. MI5 wants to subtly encourage writers whose work contains pro-capitalist, anti-communist themes. Because of her voracious reading habits, Serena is assigned to recruit aspiring novelist T. H. Haley. Of course, Haley is not aware of her MI5 connections.
You can imagine the complications that follow. Sweet Tooth is a fascinating look at Cold War attitudes through a distinctly British lens. Even more fascinating, at least to me, is its examination of Serena as a reader. She describes herself as “the basest of readers” with little time for flowery language or symbolism. How ironic that her first real assignment is all about understanding the thematic undertones of a writer’s work. She reads Haley’s short stories before meeting him and searches for those fictional characters in the man himself. It’s a game that the novel’s reader can play right along with her.
Ian McEwan is a master of the flawed protagonist. As with Atonement, there are moments when the reader may question whether Serena is a reliable narrator. She certainly has her prejudices and blind spots. Although Serena herself might disagree with me, I love that McEwan demands something from his reader. On top of asking yourself which characters are trustworthy in this tale of espionage, you might be asking yourself if you can trust Serena.
Some books make me wish that I was back in college, just so that I could write an analysis paper. I want an excuse to spend more time with Sweet Tooth and develop my ideas into arguments. In particular the ending is something that I would want to discuss at length. But of course, I can’t spoil it for any potential readers out there. If you read it, drop me a line. There’s so much more to say!