sweet tooth ian mcewan review

sweet tooth by ian mcewan book review

Plot of Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

The plot follows Serena Frome, the daughter of an Anglican bishop, as she makes her way through a formal education at Cambridge, gets recruited into MI5, and is given her first assignment – promoting reactionary literature via a front organisation. Serena’s political views are infused with a strong distaste for the Soviet Union, as inspired amongst other things by reading Solzhenitsyn’s ‘A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’, and her articles in the university press draw her to the attention of a British intelligence service with a mission to blacken the name of the Soviet Union and to keep a close watch on any sympathisers and promoters in the UK. Aside from being naively reactionary, Serena is apparently incapable of keeping her knickers on, and shags or wants to shag pretty much every male character in the story.

Keep reading for our Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan book review

cold war MI5

Sweet Tooth (the name of Serena’s first assignment) is an interesting insight into the world of MI5 in the early to mid 1970s, as Cold War Britain struggled with the Opec price shock, the miner’s strike and IMF interference. MI5 is focused on two threats to the British establishment, the Irish nationalists, and Communists, and on the latter front is monitoring and opening files on any member of the Communist Party of Great Britain as well as anyone suspected of sympathising with the Communist cause, but not a party member – the most dangerous elements, we’re told, as they have been deliberate about not making their allegiance public. In addition to surveillance, the intelligence organisation is promoting a propaganda war, using, amongst other techniques, retainers given to writers that promote the cause – ‘The idea has been to try to lure left-of-centre European intellectuals away from the Marxist perspective and make it intellectually respectable to speak up for the Free World’. In previous times, George Orwell and Arthur Koestler have been recipients of this taxpayer largesse, in the mid 1970s we’re told, one of the recipients is an academic with a dream to be a full-time novelist. Serena’s task is to recruit Thomas Haley to the cause, without him being aware that the generous pension he’s being offered has it’s source in MI5.

themes of Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

sexual attraction – it’s influence on life’s trajectory

One of the themes of the book – indeed the motor of the story – is the relationship between sex and sexual attraction, and the influence it can have on the trajectory of people’s lives. Serena’s recruitment by MI5 was a result of her becoming the mistress of a recruiter in Cambridge, and her becoming the mistress of the recruiter in Cambridge was in turn the result of her having a relationship with one of his younger pupils. The writer Serena was to recruit in the Sweet Tooth operation was motivated to accept the offer in large part because of his sexual attraction to her, and Serena’s ultimate downfall can be attributed to her interest in, and then rejection of, her MI5 boss.


Another major theme in the book is of course, deception – people either pretending to be someone they’re not, or withholding important information from their partners. Serena, once she’s got the writer signed up and has started a sexual relationship with him, struggles with whether and when to reveal her true identity and purpose, a revelation that would certainly cost her her job, and very likely also cost her her relationship. Serena’s recruiter in Cambridge manufactures a scene to enable him to leave/dump Serena so that he can go off to a remote Baltic island to die of cancer – the fake scene being created to prevent Serena from wanting to follow him. And Serena’s closest friend at work is charged with testing Serena’s reactionary beliefs by pretending to want to make life better for the working class. 

weaving in short stories

An interesting technique in the book is the weaving in of various short stories penned, we’re told, by the writer in Brighton. These stories explore some interesting themes, including deception again – one of the characters is a Labour politician who stands in for his identical twin Anglican priest to deliver an important sermon while his brother is sick. Despite being an athiest, he manages to deliver a convincing and inspiring sermon – a suggestion, perhaps, that it’s easy to fake religious belief when it’s in an individual’s interest…. or am I reading too much into that?  And I guess there’s also a comment in there on the ability of politicians to make you believe anything, even when they don’t believe it themselves.. 

In another of short stories, a faithful husband is mugged, but his wife doesn’t believe him and accuses him of spending the lost money on drink. As their relationship deteriorates, the wife fakes a burglary as cover for selling most of the household possessions to a pawn shop. The husband is alerted to the deception by the police, and then engages in his own deception by not telling his wife that he knows..

destructive relationships

The side story of the faking politician then goes on to explore what it means to be in a destructive relationship. He has an affair with a rather disturbed woman who is attracted to him by his delivery of the sermon. When he breaks off the affair, she makes life intolerable for him and his wife and family. His wife forces him out, and he falls back into a relationship with the woman. Afraid of his partner’s psychiatric episodes ‘he dreads her explosive moments and does everything he can to avoid them… he hated confrontations and was innately lazy, so by degrees he jealous eruptions trained him to her will. It happens slowly. He finds it easier to stay away from old lovers who have become friends, or from female colleagues in general… Easier too to attend weekly church services than have yet more shouting matches.’ Slowly he makes choices which make his own life smaller and smaller, and which deny his own personality in order to avoid the confrontation he fears.

motor of development

And then there’s an interesting musing on the motor of development in societies. Development, we’re told by one of the characters, relies on ‘Those clever, amoral, inventive, destructive men, single-minded, selfish, emotionally cool, cooly attractive… They were so necessary…. without them we would still be living in mud huts, waiting to invent the wheel. Three crop rotation would never have come to pass’. Discuss. I guess there’s some truth in the idea that it takes a certain sort of person to single-mindedly pursue innovation – to ignore the apparent inevitability of the status quo, and to push through the resistance of the beneficiaries of that status quo. There’s an arrogance about that, inventiveness, self-confidence and single-mindedness. Do the other attributes necessarily apply.

sweet tooth by Ian McEwan book review

I found Sweet Tooth to be a well-written, easy read, which explored some interesting ideas. I enjoyed the backdrop of Brighton, and London in the early to mid 1970s, including the pubs around Camden. I didn’t love the ending – it was akin to the …’ and then I woke up and it was all a dream’ cliche – and I found it hard to identify with any of the characters, being engaged, as they were, in discrediting an experiment that threatened the interests of British capitalists. I’d give Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan 8/10.