Sometimes 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.
- The book has at least two named characters in it – check!
- Who talk to each other – check!
- 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.