Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan, Nan A Talese/Doubleday, 2012, 321 pp
I have long considered myself a fan of Ian McEwan. Turns out I'd read just one of his novels, Atonement, which goes to show what a fine novel that is. Even so, I was shocked to discover that Sweet Tooth is only the second book I have read by him. I loved it just as much but for different reasons.
Set in 1970s London, Sweet Tooth is the code name for an MI5 operation aimed at manipulating the public mind by funding writers whose politics agree with the aims of British intelligence. A cockeyed scheme indeed, but according to McEwan it had been attempted during the early years of the Cold War with authors such as George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. Since buying an author is right up there with herding cats, you can imagine the amount of backfiring that goes on in the story.
Serena Frome, beautiful and intelligent, well read and perpetually horny, is recruited into MI5 by the usual subterfuges made known to us by John Le Carre. Subsequently, because she is also politically naive and a bit ditsy, she accepts an assignment to infiltrate the literary life of a budding writer and offer him the means to write full time. The author of course is taken in by her story about a foundation and its grants to promising writers. Serena of course sleeps with the author and falls in love with him. Horny and ditsy don't mix well with intrigue.
So things get messy, it is all very tense, and then there is a surprise ending. Have you noticed I like surprise endings and rarely see them coming? I am sometimes embarrassed by my gullibility as a reader but it sure makes reading novels like Sweet Tooth fun.
I also fell for all the inside details on the literary scene in 1970s Britain plus the historical insight I gained about a decade during which I was either stoned or raising babies (not at the same time.)
So, literary romance mixed with spy craft. Totally fun. McEwen is such a good writer.
(Sweet Tooth is currently available on the shelf in paperback and in hardcover or eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)