Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. ~Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17.

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.

Set in the 1960’s, this novel of lies and spies and deception within deception is spell-binding, especially toward the end as the author begins to tie up all the loose ends into a choose-your-own ending sort of denouement. As it begins, Serena Frome tells us how she became a spy, a very low-level spy with a fairly innocuous duty to perform. She simply has to recruit an up-and-coming novelist and lie to him about the source of her funding. No big deal. However, as Sir Walter so aptly observed, small deceptions grow over time into large, knotty messes.

Serena, who is anything but serene throughout most of the novel, and her spy-target, Tom, become lovers. They actually fall in love with each other, and the secrets between them become more and more heavy and complicated and unsustainable. In one scene Serena and Tom make love to one another on the beach and declare their love in words for the first time:

“I knew that before this love began to take its course, I would have to tell him about myself. And then the love would end. So I couldn’t tell him. But I had to.
Afterward, we lay with our arms linked, giggling like children in the the dark at our secret, at the mischief we had got away with. We laughed at the enormity of the words we had spoken. Everyone else was bound by the rules, and we were free. We’d make love all over the world, our love would be everywhere. We sat up and shared a cigarette. Then we both began to shiver from the cold, and so we headed for home.”

So ridiculous. We all do this: fool ourselves into thinking that the rules don’t apply to us, that we can lie and steal and cheat and still give and receive love that is lasting and stable. But love that’s built on deceit is just like that Biblical house built on beach sand, headed for a fall.

However, just when the reader thinks that he knows the end of this story, after all we’ve all heard it and experienced it before, love lost, betrayal uncovered, and tragedy, Mr. McEwan and Tom the novelist and Serena herself all have a few more tricks and twists of plot to reveal or live through. I’m not sure the ending is really, truly possible or likely (can the Gordian knot really be dispatched with a single sword stroke?), but I want it to be so.

I’ve read McEwan’s most famous novel, Atonement, and it, too, had a twist at the end. The surprising or ambiguous ending seems to be a trademark in most of Mr. McEwan’s novels, as is a “predeliction for more graphic sexual description than I am comfortable reading” (what I wrote about Atonement and what is also true of Sweet Tooth). I thought the sexual details were unfortunate and unnecessary, but I usually do think that about modern novels. These lascivious particulars were skim-able, and the rest of the story somewhat redeemed the few vulgar parts.

So I give the novel, which also deals with the value of fiction and the intricacies of the Cold War, a qualified recommendation.

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