With a title like that, you might think that this is story about a successful dental practice, or the story of a young woman who becomes a pastry chef. It is nothing of the sort. Sweet Tooth is the code name for an old-fashioned Cold War spy operation by MI5, the domestic spy agency, where the main character Serena Frome is hired as a low-level operative when she graduates from university.
Sweet Tooth is a complex construction, like a present-within-a-present with elaborate wrappings, with many stories-within-the-story given that one of the main characters is a writer and that we get to “read along” when the main character reads his stories. It is a story about deception as well as self-deception. It is a story about trust and the foundations of trust.
Serena is asked to enroll a young would-be writer into an arts funding scheme that will provide him a pension for three years. The Foundation that officially provides the fund is not to interfere. What the young writer does not know is that the money comes from an MI5 fund to support authors that are seen as right-wing.
Serena then starts an affair with the young writer, without revealing who she really is. During most of the book, she reflects on what will be the right time to come clean, figuring out as time goes by that the longer she waits the more impossible a confession becomes. When she starts asking herself how she will live with herself if… she concludes that she is already living with herself quite well in spite of the deception. What I kept wondering about is whether any event would force her out of her complacency and make her feel the shame I thought she ought to feel.
The end took me by surprise, with a twist I never saw coming and you’ll have to guess who ends up with pie on their face, and in what way. And the character I found the most despicable is even worse than I thought he would turn out to be. Don’t you love a book where the villains are really villainous? However, if you think that maybe Serena should be exonerated due to her youth and innocence, I would rather cast her also as a villain, more so for being indifferent to others and self-centered than for being truly nasty. The unintended consequences are not milder.
I had not been too crazy about Solar, but now I am really looking forward to reading earlier works by McEwan (just don’t know when I’ll find the time).