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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sweet Tooth

Ian McEwan

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To purchase Sweet Tooth

Title: Sweet Tooth
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 301 pages
Availability: Sweet Tooth - US
Sweet Tooth - UK
Sweet Tooth - Canada
Sweet Tooth - India
Opération Sweet Tooth - France
Honig - Deutschland
Miele - Italia
Operación Dulce - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit pedestrian, but smooth, easy, intriguingly playful read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist C+ 1/9/2012 .
Entertainment Weekly B+ 2/11/2012 Rob Brunner
Financial Times . 17/8/2012 Lucy Kellaway
The Guardian . 23/8/2012 James Lasdun
Independent on Sunday B 26/8/2012 Amanda Craig
London Rev. of Books . 13/9/2012 Adam Mars-Jones
The LA Times . 23/12/2012 Janelle Brown
New Statesman . 23/8/2012 Leo Robson
The NY Times B- 5/11/2012 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 25/11/2012 Kurt Andersen
The Observer A 1/9/2012 Julie Myerson
The Spectator . 25/8/2012 Sam Leith
The Telegraph . 3/8/2012 John Scarlett
The Telegraph B 28/8/2012 Catherine Taylor
TLS . 12/10/2012 Jerome Boyd Maunsell
Wall Street Journal . 12/11/2012 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 9/11/2012 Jonathan Yardley

  Review Consensus:

  Most find it very well written, but opinions are very mixed on how successful McEwan is

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is a clever book (.....) But it is also curiously forgettable. What it lacks is not so much an animating spirit, as a heart. (...) The book chugs along this way until the end, when Mr McEwan delivers an unwieldy denouement and some unearned sadness. By then it is hard to feel much of anything for these heroes, who are all notions and no depth." - The Economist

  • "Sweet Tooth offers enough atmosphere and forward motion to compensate for the story's slightness (and for an unnecessary twist ending that feels forced)." - Rob Brunner, Entertainment Weekly

  • "The final turn in this thoroughly clever novel fills every hole that has appeared along the way, making reviewing it without giving away the twist rather tricky. (...) What pleased me most in Sweet Tooth was its description of the very British chasm between the arts and the sciences. (...) The novel’s structure is very impressive, with layer upon layer of writers and spies, past and present, and stories inside stories. One needs some sort of map to understand it all, which is only given out at the end of the book." - Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times

  • "Depending on your tastes, you may find these recursive twists and turns delicious. It's certainly all fairly good fun to read, and the consolidation of the plot around the questions of how Serena is going to square her love with her treachery, and whether Haley's dystopian novel (based on McEwan's story "Two Fragments") is going to win the Austen prize, and if so whether his secret debt to MI5 is going to come out, is gripping in its own way -- even if that turns out to be more John Fowles than John le Carré." - James Lasdun, The Guardian

  • "Sweet Tooth, as expected, is a well-crafted pleasure to read, its smooth prose and slippery intelligence sliding down like cream. Yet one feels at the end that it is the prelude for a film script, with all the actors already cast, and its final question a foregone conclusion." - Amanda Craig, Independent on Sunday

  • "The spy conceit of Sweet Tooth proves disappointingly thin. (...) The real subject of this novel is literature. Sweet Tooth is ultimately about the relationship between writers and readers: how frequently the writing of fiction is a form of infiltration and identity theft, how readers seek themselves in books, how much we know about an author from his creations." - Janelle Brown, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It is knowing without being exactly postmodern. (...) Sweet Tooth is a triumph of the most negative possible kind, a novel that turns out to have been tiresome for a good reason" - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "The result is a clever but annoying novel that lacks both the deeply felt emotion of this author’s dazzling 2001 masterpiece, Atonement, and the chilling exactitude of his 1998 Booker Prize-winning thriller, Amsterdam. (...) These aspects of Sweet Tooth keep the reader trucking on through the novel, but alas they’re insufficient compensation for the story’s self-conscious contrivance and foreseeable conclusion." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "(A)bout as entertaining as a very intelligent novel can be and vice versa. (...) McEwan, however, has his cake and eats it, until the last chapter keeping us unaware of the metafictional con under way. Instead of flaunting it, in 20th-­century spoilsport fashion, he uses his game to reinforce and deepen the pleasurable illusions of reality, thereby satisfying conservative readers like Serena as well as those like Tom with a taste for the literary fun house. (...) Sweet Tooth is extremely clever in both the British and American senses (smart as well as amusingly tricky) and his most cheerful book by far." - Kurt Andersen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is a great big beautiful Russian doll of a novel, and its construction -- deft, tight, exhilaratingly immaculate -- is a huge part of its pleasure. There are stories within stories, ideas within ideas, even images within images (.....) (T)he novel's last few pages, with its delicious (and, you realise, blissfully earned) twist, moved me almost to tears. But you have to hang in there." - Julie Myerson, The Observer

  • "Sweet Tooth is avowedly a story about stories. (...) (T)he real charge against Sweet Tooth is the same one you’d make against many of McEwan’s novels. It is that the cleverness of its construction makes it a clockwork rather than a living thing: events take place because the author needs them to, and the psychological plausibility of the characters is subordinate to the architecture of theme and plot rather than vice versa." - Sam Leith, The Spectator

  • "Sweet Tooth is a fine and complex novel, the work of a master storyteller. It will absorb readers, of whom there will be very many. They should not go away thinking this is a true picture of the Security Service of 40 years ago." - John Scarlett, The Telegraph

  • "Various pastiches involving McEwan’s first publisher Tom Maschler, mentor Ian Hamilton and friend Martin Amis duly satisfy. Forget the spy charade: this is ultimately a book about writing, wordplay and knowingness, from McEwan’s tart asides on literary prizes to Tom’s keenness on experimental novelists and Serena’s preference for more conventional structures." - Catherine Taylor, The Telegraph

  • "McEwan’s addiction to narrative trickery has always made it difficult for critics to discuss his plots -- and so it is with Sweet Tooth, which balances precariously on the success of a final twist. (...) Sweet Tooth places too much faith in its own machinations but it is a distinctively, characteristically chilling work, nonetheless." - Jerome Boyd Maunsell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The whole of Sweet Tooth works this way, with the author constantly undercutting his story's gestures at seriousness while slipping in coy little flourishes that draw attention to his novelistic sleight-of-hand. (...) Ultimately, like his bloodless previous novel, Solar (2010), there is little point to Sweet Tooth beyond Mr. McEwan's low-level authorial deceptions." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Ian McEwan’s delicious new novel provides all the pleasures one has come to expect of him: pervasive intelligence, broad and deep knowledge, elegant prose, subtle wit and, by no means least, a singularly agreeable element of surprise." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sweet Tooth is largely set in a troubled Britain in the early 1970s. The narrator presents herself as Serena Frome, the daughter of a bishop who has enough of a knack for maths to study it at Cambridge (but not quite so much as to get better than a third ...). What she really likes is reading, and that's something she continues to pursue. An affair with a much older man is a stepping stone to the British intelligence service MI5 where she lands an entry-level job. Career opportunities for women are still limited there at that time, and the pay isn't very good, but the secret job also holds some appeal.
       Eventually Serena is recruited to work on project 'Sweet Tooth', a program that channels funding to writers who seem to be sympathetic (to the anti-Soviet cause), as the CIA did with the magazine Encounter. They're eyeing up-and-coming novelists and avid reader Serena seems like just the girl to vet one they are considering -- and, if he's deemed suitable, to get him to take the money (without, of course, revealing where it's from or why he really is getting it).
       The author is Tom Haley, and though he's only written a few short works of fiction, as well as some essays, she's very impressed by what she reads. Haley, too, impresses her; as she puts it later:

I'd fallen for the stories and then the man.
       He takes the money -- an opportunity too good to pass up -- and they begin an intense affair. The hoped-for novel isn't quite what MI5 had in mind -- rather too bleak and dreary ("monochrome pessimism", Serena calls it) -- but with it Haley seems on his way to literary success. But it all doesn't work out quite the way anyone had hoped.
       This being MI5, there are lots of secret and a great deal of dissimulation: much isn't said at all, and much isn't quite what it seems. Serena's original mentor, whom she had the affair with and who led her to MI5 is a case in point, several times over, but Serena finds a lot else that isn't quite what it appears to be -- and that she can't quite figure out. Part of it is also simply that she's a specific kind of reader, a fan of the "undemanding social documentary" fiction popular at the time. As she explains:
I was a born empiricist. I believed that writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever they had made up. 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 inthe books I liked for the double agent. That year I had tried and discarded the authors that sophisticated friends in Cambridge had pressed on me -- Borges and Barth, Pynchon and Cortázar and Gaddis.
       Haley, on the other hand, is pure writer -- and willing to cross the borders repeatedly. No surprise, then, that that might become something of a problem in their relationship, and in Serena's mission. (Of course, the fact that she is living a fiction -- not revealing to Haley who she actually works for, and why she initially took an interest in him and his work -- doesn't exactly help to make for an empirically clear-cut situation, either.)
       Serena is also drawn to a colleague at MI5, Max, but first he and then she is otherwise committed, frustrating each in turn. It's Max who "put in a good word" for Serena, to get her involved in Sweet Tooth -- but Max is also no great fan of the way the program is going, maintaining: "I think we should stick to nonfiction."
       Sweet Tooth is a novel, so, of course, there's no chance of that. That the fiction-project is ill-fated is also something readers know from the opening paragraph, where Serena admits that within less than two years of joining MI5 she was sacked: "having disgraced myself and ruined my lover". The details, the full story, unfolds for the most part fairly predictably, at least in its most general outlines. But McEwan also keeps a playful side to it all: repeatedly, not everything is quite as it seems -- and sometimes not even in the ways one might have expected.
       The novel's opening words are of introduction:
My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service
       The long passage of time, and the promise of something sensational (secret missions ! the Security Service !) catch the eye, but the unlikely rhyme might also be worth closer attention. If not immediately clear, Serena's consistently light and surprisingly playful tone throughout the novel, even when things go wrong, suggests an author at play here, and one can imagine the twinkle in McEwan's eyes as he presents his story.
       A quite vivid look at a Britain brought close to its knees in the early 1970s, as well as the broader literary scene of the times, Sweet Tooth is a playful if ultimately too slight novel, satisfied with being entertaining without quite taking advantage of all its possibilities. A novel of the kind that, despite its final twist, Serena would read and approve of.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 May 2013

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Sweet Tooth: Reviews: Ian McEwan: Other books by Ian McEwan under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Ian McEwan is the author of many fine novels. He won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998.

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