Ian McEwan’s latest novel tells the story of an unlikely secret agent with a weakness for love.
Ian McEwan is among the undisputed masters of British literature, and in his newest novel, Sweet Tooth (Nan A. Talese, $27), he recreates the grim, gray London of the 1970s. A time of labor strikes, rising inflation, IRA bombings and power shortages, it is the Cold War era in which McEwan came of age. In Sweet Tooth, he has fun turning the serious nature of the time on its ear.
Cambridge student Serena — McEwan’s first female protagonist since Atonement — is merely mediocre at mathematics and prefers Jacqueline Susann to Jane Austen. While out walking one night with the current object of her affection, a history student with whom she is engaged in an awkward love affair, enigmatic tutor Tony Canning quite literally steps into Serena’s path. It doesn’t take long for Serena to leave her lover for the much-older Tony, who gives her a crash course in British history, literature and, ultimately, the world of MI5.
From the start, McEwan lets us know this isn’t your typical spy thriller, so it’s no surprise when we learn that Serena isn’t a good match for either Tony or MI5. A few months after their affair begins, Tony abandons Serena by the side of the road, leaving her to an unremarkable career in the office pool at the British intelligence agency. That is, until she is asked to participate in a mission secretly funding writers whose work supports the U.K. government’s agenda. Serena’s job is simple: Travel to Brighton, pose as a representative from a literary foundation and offer English doctoral student and writer Tom Haley a two-year fellowship generous enough for him to leave his studies and focus on his writing.
As is her nature, Serena falls madly in love with Tom, and a series of lies determines the course of their relationship — and the rest of the novel. McEwan’s quirky approach presents stories within stories and is peppered with references to his previous work, as well as cameos from fellow writers and editors. Be warned: It takes every last page to see his farce through, but in the end, McEwan delivers.