Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

sweet-toothSometimes Ian McEwan works for me, sometimes he doesn’t. It’s kind of a crap shoot. With Sweet Tooth he works for me. That, no doubt, has to do with the setting – MI5 during the Cold War, 1970’s London, a young woman making her way in the big, bad city. And like the best of McEwan’s novels, it has a great ending.

Recruited straight out of Cambridge, Serena finds herself working in a low level clerical job at MI5, Britain’s Internal Intelligence Agency. Career-wise, she’s headed nowhere until Operation Sweet Tooth comes along. It seeks to control the political conversation by promoting certain cultural producers. Serena becomes part of the operation because no one reads more than she does. So yes, it is a happy mix of book and espionage.

As much as i initially liked Sweet Tooth, I realized as I kept reading that Serena just wasn’t a very good female character. So I turned to the Bechdel Test.

  1. The book has at least two named characters in it – check!
  2. Who talk to each other – check!
  3. About something besides a man – sigh.

If I wanted to, I could argue that Serena speaks to her co-worker about “work”. But that kind of falls apart when Serena begins a relationship with her boss and falls in love with the writer she recruits into Operation Sweet Tooth. Because of the setting in a very male workplace I can accept the sexist treatment of female co-workers. In  fact, if it were missing it just wouldn’t ring true. My problem really is that Serena, for all her intelligence and reading, rarely has anything to worry about besides her love life.

Who would like this book? I put Sweet Tooth into the category of McEwan’s better novels. It is not as dense or impenetrable as some of his more recent books. It veers more closely to Amsterdam and Attonement. Or what I like to call the good old days of McEwan. But that being said, I should note that I haven’t read The Children’s Act.


  1. This was the first McEwan I read and I liked it OK, but wasn’t blown away to the extent I expected given McEwan’s stature. I liked The Children Act even less, so figured he and I just didn’t get along. But, I should probably try Atonement.

  2. I thought this one was just okay. I only gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, and it really didn’t stay with me, and unlike some of his other books, it didn’t give me as much to mull over. I probably liked On Chesil Beach about as much, but it was ultimately more interesting because it led me to thinking about why people get married and how we communicate in a relationship. Atonement is definitely my favorite McEwan.

  3. I loved this book, it’s delightful. It’s 1972, so things were of course very sexist and I would imagine espionage would be one of the worst in terms of sexism. It’s a romance, so I didn’t mind the man fixation, and back in the 1970s I fixated on my love life too.

  4. I feel the same way about McEwan’s books. Atonement was good, but made me so mad. Saturday was boring. On Chesil Beach I liked. I would like to try The Children’s Act, because I like the premise.

  5. Hi Tanya,
    I read this some time ago and really liked it. Also enjoyed The Children’s Act. I guess you’d say that whenever a new McEwan book is published, I look forward to reading it.


    P.S. We’ve booked a self-drive Iceland tour for June. Thanks again for your input.

  6. I’m the same with McEwan – hit and miss. Loved Atonement which was the first I read so the bar was set high. Loved Chesil Beach (it packed punch for a short novel). Amsterdam was okay, Solar so-so, Enduring Love was memorable even though I didn’t really enjoy it much… But Sweet Tooth I liked (didn’t love it but Serena was a great character). Children Act is in the TBR stack still.

  7. I completely agree – McEwan can be hit and miss – The Children Act for example was poor, by his usual standards. I loved On Chesil Beach. What he does best is play with point of view, and in Sweet Tooth there is a big twist at the end of the novel which I won’t give away, but which explains why the characterisation of the lead character is off-key. I thought it one of his best.

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