Book Review – SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwanSweet Tooth Synopsis

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. (Amazon


Sweet Tooth is the first Ian McEwan title that I have had the opportunity to read, and I had high expectations for this latest release from this much lauded author.

My name is Serena Frome, rhymes with Plume, and almost 40 years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely.

Sweet Tooth started strong, with this atmospheric opening and I quickly began to warm to protagonist Serena Frome. Her reflective tale was mysterious and her dark humoured manner of telling it stripped of all pretense appealed to me.

I didn’t use and hadn’t even heard the word ‘totalitarianism’. I probably would have thought it had something to do with refusing a drink.

However, the atmospheric tension of the opening soon morphed to a soporific mood – not the ideal quality for an audiobook I was listening to while driving in peak hour traffic.  This mood was probably compounded by narrator Juliet Stevenson‘s husky voice. That is not to say that her performance of the novel was anything other than exemplary. The first third of the novel just felt like something the reader had to work through in the hope of better things to come, and I think McEwan risked losing a portion of his audience at this point.

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In Sweet Tooth Ian McEwan reserves the ultimate payoff for committed readers.

I am glad I hung in there though because the pace certainly picks up once Serena meets Tom Haley – this is when I became engrossed.

I would describe Sweet Tooth as a literary themed spy thriller. There is much discussion about the merits of fictional writing (populist versus highbrow) between the characters which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the avant garde stories written by the character Tom Haley are shared with the reader as Serena reads and reflects upon them. On a more macro level, Sweet Tooth is an exploration of human behaviour and the varying motives behind them.

I shall not discuss what happens any further for fear of spoiling it for future readers, suffice to say that the ending is a clever one that left me questioning my own thinking. I was ultimately impressed by Sweet Tooth and would recommend it for the more literary inclined, but I still question whether McEwan could have achieved the same outcome without stretching the friendship with readers quite so much on the journey.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5

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BOOK DETAILS:  Sweet Tooth (Audible); Sweet Tooth (Amazon); Sweet Tooth (TheNile – Aus); Sweet Tooth (Kobobooks)

Genre: Drama, Historical, LiteratureRomanceThriller


Author Information: Ian McEwan was born on 21 June 1948 in Aldershot, England. He studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970. He received his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia.

McEwan’s works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. He won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and the Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; and Germany’s Shakespeare Prize in 1999. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction numerous times, winning the award for Amsterdam in 1998. His novel Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), National Book Critics’ Circle Fiction Award (2003), Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). He was awarded a CBE in 2000. In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Saturday, and his novel On Chesil Beach was named Galaxy Book of the Year at the 2008 British Book Awards. McEwan has been named the Reader’s Digest Author of the Year for 2008, the 2010 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, and in 2011 was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. McEwan lives in London.

Other reviews of Sweet Tooth: The Guardian, Happy Antipodean, City of Tongues, Kill Your Darlings, KevinfromCanada