This book is: dull and irritating.
Other elements: pleasing men, washing smalls in a bedsit, poetry, the Russians, Britain in the 1970’s.
Read it: if you’re having trouble falling asleep, or if you like spy stories but prefer to remain very calm at all times.
Overall rating: 4/10
I was excited to read this book for two reasons: first, because McEwan’s Atonement is glorious, and second, because this novel is about a lady secret agent. I imagined a sharp, driven heroine, an engaging protagonist I would admire and hunger to know everything about.
I was wrong.
That’s what she does. She stumbles around in her life, doing nothing intentionally except seeking the attention and validation of men. Often it doesn’t go well and then she cries, usually at work. Her secret spy job is an accident – a former lover gets her the interview, which she attends because she’s heartbroken after a breakup and can’t think of any alternative. When she is presented with a career opportunity, she can’t see it in any other way except how it will affect a man who scorned her and if it will present her with a new man to apply her attention to. But even this seeking of love and affection feels muted, as if she’s barely aware of what she’s doing. It’s more off-putting than I would have believed possible.
I don’t need to admire a character to want to read about him or her, but Serena’s barely worth disliking. She reminds me strongly of another famously vapid, approval-seeking fictional blonde of the same name.
It was a pretty bleak slog though this one, but there were bright – or less dim – points. As part of Serena’s adventures (I use that word sarcastically) she gets to do some reading. The reader is treated to several of the short stories that she selects, and they’re really quite good. It’s a shame they’re stuck inside such an unappealing framework. But there was a bonus: one of these fictional stories was supposed to have been published in The Kenyon Review, the fabulous literary magazine I had the honor of working for as an undergrad. Kenyon pride!
The novel ends with a big reveal. It’s clearly meant to be shocking, but I was so tired of the characters by that point that I was just excited that the book appeared to be almost over. That, and the letter that the heroine receives which contains the reveal goes on for pages and pages; I skimmed large parts of it, just like I did the novel.
I’ll let the main character conclude this review of Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan herself:
Me too, Serena. Me too.