Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”), the daughter of an Anglican bishop, lives a quiet, sheltered life with her parents and sister in England. Beautiful and clever with a talent for math, her parents, particularly her mother, insist that she study the subject at Cambridge. Serena’s passion, however, is reading, and if left to her own devices she would have happily pursued an English degree at a small local college. Her undergraduate studies at Cambridge are a disappointment; although she excelled in math as a schoolgirl, she struggles with her math tutorials. Despite her lackluster academic performance, Serena continues to read voraciously, eventually writing a book column for a classmate’s literary magazine. She also develops a relationship with a history student named Jeremy Mott.
Serena’s introduction to the world of espionage begins with a chance meeting with Jeremy’s history tutor, Tony Canning. Captivated by her beauty and idealism, Canning begins an affair with Serena while grooming her as a possible MI5 recruit. Their brief affair in the summer of 1972 includes intense tutorials on British politics and history, stoking the political fervor Serena discovered as a student at Cambridge. The affair ends abruptly, but not before she lands an interview with MI5.
Although she starts her MI5 career performing low-level clerical duties, she soon receives an assignment that draws on her love of reading. Seeking to influence the cultural conversation, MI5 is funding writers whose politics are consistent with those of the government through an operation with the code name of “Sweet Tooth.” Serena’s mission is to recruit a promising writer and academic named Tom Haley. His stories, surreal with a subtly political bent, enchant Serena, and she soon finds herself falling in love with Haley. Their romance coincides with Haley’s first major literary triumph, but his nomination for a major award threatens to unravel MI5’s carefully crafted scheme.
The opening paragraph of Sweet Tooth not only reveals the outcome of Serena’s brief tenure in MI5, but it also lays the groundwork for McEwan’s audacious metafictional trick. It’s a risky gambit; why bother reading the rest of the book if you already know how the story will end before you finish the first page? I thought it worked because it ultimately ties in with Serena’s love of stories and literature.
Some of my favorite moments in Sweet Tooth involve Tom Haley’s stories, particularly the novel he completes after he meets Serena. These stories within a story help develop Haley’s character and the relationship he has with Serena. The intriguing cast of supporting characters include Shirley Shilling, Serena’s friend and co-worker at MI5; her colleague Max Greatorex; and Tony Canning.
Wryly entertaining, Sweet Tooth deftly mixes espionage, love, and literature.
Check the WRL catalog for Sweet Tooth