So I have to start out by saying that I like Ian McEwan. I've only read Solar and Atonement, but I liked both and I think one of McEwan's strengths is in his misanthropic, narcissistic main characters. I love the way he makes the reader understand and empathize with sociopaths. Unfortunately, that was missing in Sweet Tooth.
Instead, we get a highly autobiographical, very masturbatory novel ostensibly about a young girl in the early 1970s who is a spy for MI5. I say ostensibly because actually the novel is about her novelist boyfriend (upon whom she is also spying) who must be very much like McEwan was in the early 1970s. I have read some of McEwan's set (Julien Barnes, Martin Amis, and Christopher Hitchens TO WHOM THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED) and clearly, the political leanings and the concern about the effects of the Cold War on culture and journalism and art are McEwans own from that era. Knowing McEwan's connection to the "upper crust" (if you will) of British intelligentsia and academia and his relationship to the "inner writing core" of both novelists and journalists from this time period I was really rather excited over the first 50 pages or so. I really thought, "wow, McEwan is writing about a female spy from a time in which he probably actually knew some female spies." I was eager for a plot driven (since even in the first 50 pages it had become clear to me that this was not a character driven) novel.
And that is when I discovered that it was not really plot driven. As mentioned, it is not a character driven piece (in fact, the best thing we can say about the supposed main character is that she is a nice piece of ass who means well). It meanders and wanders and tries to be sneaky (but isn't, I mean, really there are no surprises in this novel ABOUT A SPY). There is no mystery here; it is simply a platform for McEwan to reminisce and wax nostalgic about the Cold War.
It is also highly metaphysical. Besides the whole (trite, overused, and at this point rather annoying) story within a story; McEwan also uses several short stories (supposedly Tom's previously published work) to side-step and give us lots of short story material. I found this all to be rather over done (psycho-analyzing the supposed author within the story which was rather autobiographical already...is McEwan asking the reader to make inferences about himself through the character of Tom or through Tom's character of the twin posing as a cleric (for example)?). In this post-modern world, I understand that we must be aware of ourselves looking at ourselves, but this was really just too much. I felt a lot like Serena: "So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent." I didn't want the author to smother me with his tricks, I just wanted him to get on with it.
And yes, I did notice that Serena's sole motivating wish with all of her reading was to find a character in whom she could completely identify herself: "I supposed I was, in my mindless way, looking for something, a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favorite old shoes....I supposed I would not have been satisfied until I had in my hands a novel about a girl in a Camden bedsit who occupied a lowly position in MI5 and was without a man." Oh my god, how trite is it then, when, we finally understand the whole book to be, in fact, her book. Ugh...just ugh..ugh...ugh and way too cheap for someone as talented as McEwan.
Speaking of Serena, why is it that McEwan felt he had to make her just so incompetent? Her mother assures us of her intelligence and we are meant to feel it too, until Serena gets to Cambridge and we realize that she is not up to snuff and will only earn a third. Of course, she is recommended to MI5 in part because of her ability to parrot Tony's lessons but mostly just because she is sleeping with him. And then, the whole "plot" resolves itself because Max is a disgruntled lover and the upper management even realizes that exactly what they expected would happen has: that is the pretty, bright-enough girl has opened a world of chaos with her inability to prevent having the men around her fall in love with her. Certainly not the feminist point of view (or protagonist) that we are led to believe in during those fabulous first 50ish pages.
Of course all of that said, I still enjoyed lots of it. I do find McEwan's prose to be insightful and entertaining. He makes great commentary about humanity, such as:
that the shops were full of items "available for like-minded hordes desperate to express their individuality";
"Loud people, especially loud women, always attract enemies";
and "Your reputation will rest only on this, because ultimately reality is social, it's among others that we have to live and their judgments matter. Even, or especially, when we're dead."
It was better than the average book, but it was not compelling and it was not believable. I think I would have liked it better if McEwan had told the same story as a fictionalized account of himself in the early 1970s instead of using the "trick" of a main character that is hidden behind his own words and seeing through his girlfriend's eyes.