Sweet Tooth — a light, comic novel from Ian McEwan, the author of Atonement and Amsterdam — tells the story of Serena Frome (pronounced like "plume," we're told), an intelligence agent in MI5 in the '70s. Her eventual assignment is to pose as a member of a foundation that funds exciting new writers, but really exists to encourage writers with a pro-capitalist agenda. It's a bizarre scheme, but just believable enough, and reminiscent of a similar real-life scheme by the CIA with various literary journals, a fact mentioned by the book's MI5 agents. Less believable is Serena herself.
McEwan has created a character whose life lurches from event to event based on her pursuit of various men, from the older lover who gets her an interview with the agency, to the colleague who gets her the big assignment (the eponymous "Sweet Tooth"), to the author she's supposed to be monitoring. Once she starts dating her author, she starts to have second thoughts about the assignment. Should she sacrifice her job for the man she loves?
The book also considers the state of intelligence in England in the '70s, with concerns about the IRA butting up against the usual worries about the Soviet Union. Is the collapse of Western civilization imminent? Important issues, but Serena usually only raises them while pointing out that she's pretending to be better informed than she is for various men. She also notes the sexism she encounters at her job, mostly seeming indifferent to it.
There are certainly young women in the world who are as romance-focused as Serena. But with women often relegated to the role of love interest, did we need a novel from the perspective of someone who acts like a secondary character?
A revelation late in the novel unseats the fragile sympathy the reader may have developed for the frustrating, if often quite funny, Serena. It's a twist that both explains why Serena is the way she is while also condescending to her. It's the kind of development that worked well in Atonement, but not so in this comic spy thriller.
SWEET TOOTH | By Ian McEwan | Doubleday/Nan A. Talese | 320 pages | $26.95
Lisa Weidenfeld can be reached at Lisa.Weidenfeld@gmail.com:: @lisaweidenfeld