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. In “Sweet Tooth,” as elsewhere in McEwan’s fiction, things are not always what they seem to be, with the result that the reader is permitted to delight in the aforementioned pleasures while wondering all the while what, exactly, is going on.
Well, you will say after coasting happily through the first nine-tenths of the book, of course this is Serena Frome’s “(rhymes with plume)” story, as told by her. So far as I can determine, the choice of surname is purely coincidental, as in neither mood nor themes does “Sweet Tooth” bear any resemblance to Edith Wharton’s well-known novel “Ethan Frome”; indeed, for all her faults, Serena is a considerably more engaging and likable character than poor old Ethan, with his ruined face and frustrated love. But if this is indeed Serena’s story, the telling of it in time becomes part of the mystery, yet another manifestation of McEwan’s fascination with the ownership of narrative and the complicated relationship between imagination and intelligence.
(Nan A. Talese) - ‘Sweet Tooth’ by Ian McEwan
Intelligence, that is, in the sense of espionage, information-gathering, dissembling and false clues. As the novel opens, Serena, the daughter of an Anglican bishop in a pleasant provincial city, has just concluded a mediocre career at Cambridge, where she “was considered something of a freak of nature — a girl who happened to have a talent for mathematics” and, more than that, “a good-looking girl in a miniskirt, with blond hair curling past her shoulder blades.” The miniskirt is an important detail, because it sets the context: This is the early 1970s, with the Cold War still ominously active, Britain bogged down in the bloody conflict over Northern Ireland, workers of almost every imaginable sort angry and out on strike, London threatening to collapse into one vast slum, the empire gone and the arrogant United States on the rise. Serena studies only enough math to get by, preferring to occupy herself with an unsystematic reading of whatever novels she can get her hands on, and indulging in an affair with a fellow named Jeremy Mott, an affair that would have no consequence in her life except that Jeremy introduces her to his history tutor, Tony Canning, a man in his 50s:
“He was of the great and good, a type vaguely familiar to me. Men like him came to our house to visit the Bishop from time to time. They were annoying of course to anyone under twenty-five in that post-sixties period, but I rather liked them too. They could be charming, even witty, and the whiff they trailed of cigars and brandy made the world seem orderly and rich. They thought much of themselves, but they didn’t seem dishonest, and they had, or gave the impression they had, a strong sense of public service. They took their pleasures seriously (wine, food, fishing, bridge, etc.) and apparently some had fought an interesting war. I had memories of childhood Christmases when one or two of them would tip my sister and me a ten bob note. Let these men rule the world. There were others far worse.”