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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Enjoying a Sweet Tooth

I don’t exactly have a love/hate relationship with the oeuvre of Ian McEwan. I have what you might call a love/not-like-all-that-much relationship with it. I adore Atonement, which is probably one of my favorite novels of all time. I love On Chesil Beach and I greatly like The Cement Garden and all of his short stories. Saturday and Solar would go a little further down the list, and I don’t like Enduring Love or Amsterdam at all.

With those last two, I felt played with. Manipulated. Now, I don’t mind being manipulated at all, in fact, some of my favorite artists are master manipulators, e.g., Alfred Hitchcock. But I don’t want to feel like I’m being manipulated. I’d rather remain completely unconscious of the strings being pulled. And sometimes, McEwan’s strings are a little too obvious, and despite his always precise and beautiful prose and his intricately developed characters and plots, I resent feeling the author's presence--and I want to cut those strings.

But I’m happy to report that his latest, Sweet Tooth, is definitely on the love-it end of the yeah/meh spectrum. It’s one of those books that you don’t want to say too much about, because there is a literally gasp-inducing (I gasped. out loud. really.) twist that I wouldn’t want to ruin for anyone.

The basic plot is pretty simple: beautiful Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume” she tells us on the first page) narrates her tale, set in the early seventies. She’s a brilliant Cambridge math (or “maths” as they say in Britain) grad, who has been recruited by the British intelligence service, MI5. There, because of her compulsive speed-reading of novels, she is chosen to run an undercover operation, code-named “Sweet Tooth,”  designed to manipulate the cultural mood by funding writers whose politics MI5 believes to be desirable. In the midst of the Cold War, that means anti-Soviet.

The book delivers on so many levels: the plot fascinates, Serena is—seemingly—an honest and entertaining narrator. There is mystery, romance, betrayal, comedy (I did laugh out loud several times), literary analysis (I’ve never read a book that mentioned so many other books), even tragedy. As many reviewers have said, it’s a novel about novels—about writing them and reading them and what they mean to us in every sense.

And, because one of the things I love about McEwan is his compassion, it’s a novel about love, and the hope it brings us, and forgiveness, and humanity. How can you not love a book that loves books and loves love so very much? I can’t. 

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