In this stunning new novel, Ian McEwan's first female protagonist since Atonement is about to learn that espionage is the ultimate seduction.Cambridge student Serena Frome's beauty and intelligence make her the ideal recruit for MI5. Read more...
In this stunning new novel, Ian McEwan's first female protagonist since Atonement is about to learn that espionage is the ultimate seduction.Cambridge student Serena Frome's beauty and intelligence make her the ideal recruit for MI5. The year is 1972. The Cold War is far from over. England's legendary intelligence agency is determined to manipulate the cultural conversation by funding writers whose politics align with those of the government. The operation is code named "Sweet Tooth." Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is the perfect candidate to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer named Tom Haley. At first, she loves his stories. Then she begins to love the man. How long can she conceal her undercover life? To answer that question, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage: trust no one. Once again, Ian McEwan's mastery dazzles us in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal and intrigue, love and the invented self.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-08-13
- Reviewer: Staff
McEwan goes for laughs in this cold war spoof in which Serena Frome, one time math whiz, struggles through Cambridge and graduates in 1972 with an embarrassing third. For reasons never satisfactorily explained, a professor and former MI5 operative recruits her as a spy. Serena’s soon in love, not for the last time in the story, no matter that he’s 54, long married and sickly, or that she’s 21, gorgeous, and in a relationship. She’s a voracious reader, and her familiarity with contemporary fiction earns her an assignment to persuade a writer with anti-Soviet leanings to abandon academia and write full-time, supported by funding whose source he can never know. Espionage fans won’t find much that’s credible, and fans of political farce might be surprised by a narrative less focused on lampooning MI5 than on mocking (mostly female) readers. Given the nonstop wisecracks, the book might be most satisfying if read as sheer camp. A twist confirms that the misogyny isn’t to be taken seriously, but Serena’s intellectual inferiority is a joke that takes too long to reach its punch line. McEwan devotees may hope that in his next novel he returns to characterizations deeper than the paper they’re printed on. Agent: The Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. (Nov.)
Lies, seduction and espionage from Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan’s new novel is a stylish and sexy morality play set in the world of British espionage of the early 1970s. If it doesn’t have quite the intensity of Atonement, it’s still a smart, entertaining story that explores the boundary between truth and fiction, in both life and stories.
Recruited by an older lover into little more than a glorified clerical job with MI5, Serena Frome is a young Cambridge grad whose indifference to the mathematics she studied there is matched only by her love for reading. It seems fitting that she’s enlisted in the “Sweet Tooth” program, posing as the representative of a foundation that encourages unsuspecting writers to produce stories that portray the Soviet Union and its allies in a negative light. Serena is assigned to recruit journalist and aspiring novelist Tom Haley into that group. Unsurprisingly, their business transaction quickly evolves into an intense love affair.
The ethical conundrum that lies at the heart of the story comes into focus when Tom’s dystopian, anti-capitalist novel brings him a prestigious prize. Serena is caught between her handlers’ distaste for Tom’s literary product and her fear that the truth of what brought them together will be exposed, disgracing him and abruptly ending her career. As she gropes for a way out, it becomes clear she’s as much a creator of fictions as her lover, a reality McEwan highlights in the satisfying twist that concludes the novel.
Alongside his engaging plot McEwan does a capable job sketching a portrait of Britain’s bleak economic and political circumstances in this era. The country reels from the shock of the Arab oil embargo, the damage compounded by labor unrest in the coal-mining industry. To conserve scarce energy Serena’s work week is reduced to three mind-numbing days in a damp, chilly office. McEwan also pokes gentle fun at the desiccated quality of the spy game of the time, reduced long before the fall of the Berlin Wall to little more than bureaucratic wrangling, while the looming threat of terrorism is glimpsed dimly at best.
In her reading, Serena longs for “characters I could believe in,” hoping “to be made curious about what was to happen to them.” McEwan has supplied a worthy collection of such characters in Sweet Tooth, a spritely portrait of the malleability of fact and fiction.