Sisters Book Club: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sisters Book Club is a book club my sister and I accidentally started earlier this year. We enjoyed reading our first book selection together so much, we’ve decided to invite others to read along with us. If you’d like to join us in reading Sisterland, the July selection for the Sisters Book Club, check out this post.

CIMG1229Sweet Tooth is the latest novel from Ian McEwan, who also penned Atonement and Saturdayamong many others. It’s written from the point of view of Serena Frome, a young woman who is recruited into the MI5 out of college. The plot takes us through some of the unexpected places that job takes her.

My sister and I read Sweet Tooth pretty quickly, but it’s taken us a while to put together our joint book review. It’s possible we’ll streamline the process as we get more experience with this kind of thing. It’s also possible it will stay just as clunky and inefficient. You just never know with us.

Gabby:  I happened to be listening to NPR on a long drive shortly before the winter holidays and heard the following interview with McEwan about Sweet Tooth: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth Pits Spy vs Scribe.

Having recently returned from visiting several British friends, I was already intrigued by the culture in general, and coupled with my like of McEwan (as well as a need for Christmas gift ideas!) it seemed like a great choice to kick off a Sisters Book Club.  So I recruited my favorite female sibling, and here we are. I had read a couple of Ian McEwan novels already (Atonement and Saturday) and despite a few criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style and the skill with which he describes a scene with particularity while maintaining a concise and thoughtful word choice.

CJ: The only McEwan I’d read before this was Atonement, and while I kind of liked it, I didn’t like it enough that I was super excited about reading Sweet Tooth. I ended up enjoying Sweet Tooth more than I expected—and probably more than I enjoyed Atonement—but it took me a while to get to that point.

Sweet Tooth alternately intrigued and annoyed me with the little inconsistencies and weird bits throughout. I want to say I like an unreliable narrator, but I’m not sure I do. While I enjoyed picking out those things that seemed out-of-place or just unlikely (like Serena remembering the exact amount she spent on a chair or quoting verbatim a passage from a book she’d never read), I don’t like feeling manipulated by a writer, and that’s kind of how I feel when there’s something intentionally “off” about a narrator. If you can’t trust the person telling the story, who can you trust?

But then there was an element of that for Serena, too—trying to figure out the motives of those around her (including herself) and trying to determine who she could trust. I spent most of the book unsure if the “off” bits were lapses on McEwan’s part or intentional clues to something else. In the end I decided to trust the author, and that was much more pleasant than complaining about every little thing, which was my initial inclination.

The issue of trust between reader and writer is even addressed explicitly in the book. McEwan writes (in Serena’s voice):

“There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust.”

I wondered at many points just how much McEwan himself was a character in this novel.

McEwan says, in the interview you linked, Gabby:

“You could say that all novels are spy novels and all novelists are spy masters. Novelists have to be adept at controlling the flow of information, and, most crucially, they have to be in charge of the narrative. So it is the case in this love story that, without wishing to give away too closely the end of this novel, [Tom] is spying on Serena as a novelist, even as she is spying on him as a spy.”

I did enjoy that “meta” aspect of the novel, when McEwan writes about the relationship between the reader and the written work and how that differs (or not) from the relationship between the reader and the writer. Serena wonders what she’s getting herself into getting involved with a fiction writer. She reads his stories and wonders who inspired the characters and how she might one day show up in Tom’s writing. At the same time, though, there’s some indication that this might be just what she’s looking for, not just in Tom’s writing, but in the novels she reads in general.

“I was the basest of readers,” she writes. “All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form.” And with that, I think McEwan leads the reader to wonder about herself. We learn why Serena reads fiction, and we wonder why it is we’re reading fiction. Or at least I do.

Gabby: I agree, there were several points in the novel that give cause for a bit of self-reflection. For me, I alternated between liking Serena, and being frustrated by her actions. I wanted a strong, infallible female lead character (and, if I am being honest, that’s how I would like to view myself as well). Instead, the reader is presented this real, flawed person.

And in retrospect, a point of pain for me (Serena’s—to me—weak-minded reaction when presented with an unsavory reality) ends up being a predictor of how I myself have come to think of the book.  I, too, was initially annoyed with the ending—the unsavory reality it presented.  My knee-jerk reaction was to feel betrayed and stubbornly refuse to like the entire novel.  But as more time has passed, I can look back and, much like Serena, accept the unsavory bits as a necessary accompaniment to the savory ones.  And maybe, just maybe, embrace them a little as well.  Which is, I suppose, another opportunity for self-reflection and observations on life in general.

CJ: What did you think about all of the Britishisms? This was definitely one of those British novels that left me wondering at spots if I was confused because the author wants me to be confused or if I was confused because I’m not British. I think there are cultural and historical references that would be less work for someone who’s part of the culture (e.g., I still don’t get the MI5 vs MI6 distinction, which it seemed to be assumed that the reader would get), but for the most part, I enjoyed that they were there.

(As a side note, shortly after I finished Sweet Tooth, I watched the movie Five Minutes of Heaven, about the long-term personal repercussions of the violence in Northern Ireland, and having a bit of background from Sweet Tooth about that period of violence in the 1970’s helped me understand the plot of the film a little better.)

You and I talked about how this was another of those self-conscious, “meta” sort of things. There’s even a part in the novel about how a little reality makes a fiction more believable.

Gabby: Yes, that section is on page 62 and reads:

“I believed that writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever they had made up.”

Although if I wanted to get existential I could argue that a little bit of fiction makes reality more believable….nah, one philosophical view per book review is my limit.

Smart-aleck comments aside, I generally agree that the historical references could be both engaging and distracting. I tend to enjoy history and research, so was grateful for the excuse to delve into a few topics, but found it easy as well to get side-tracked checking the references. The persons and events noted aren’t exactly simple, quick “Wiki-check” kinds of references, and can comprise a whole expanse of reading in and of themselves if left unchecked.

Having read the book carefully once and skimmed back through a few times, I am struck with the idea that it could almost be more effectively digested in at least two readings, once to get a rudimentary idea/timeline established and research the historical references for clarity, then again to piece the puzzle together using the information learned from the conclusion.  Then I decide that’s a bit more of a time investment than is really necessary; this is the kind of novel to simply read, doing a little research here and there, and enjoy the ride (or, alternatively, curse the driver).

What books would like to see Gabby and me review on Sisters Book Club? Let us know in the comments!

4 Replies to “Sisters Book Club: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan”

    1. I’m glad you found the review helpful! It’s the first collaborative review I’ve worked on, and although it was very fun to write with my sister, it wasn’t clear how the review would read to others.

      I also read your post about Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I’ve only read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but I think I might be adding this one to my TBR list, too!


  1. MI5 spies on Brits, MI6 spies on ‘foreigners’ 🙂

    I enjoyed this, but not as much as some of his earlier books. I thought he was trying to be a bit too tricksy and I got fed up with him constantly referencing his own earlier stories – all a bit self-indulgent and would be lost on anyone who hadn’t read his entire back catalogue, I felt.

    Thanks for an enjoyable review!


    1. Thanks for the MI5/MI6 distinction!

      Yes, although I’ve only read two of his books, I suspected McEwan was referencing some of his previous stuff (and perhaps poking fun at a younger version of himself). It was a little bit cleverer than I generally prefer.

      Thanks for the comment!


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