England in the early ‘70s: IRA terrorism, power shortages, Cold War tensions. Into this milieu novelist Ian McEwan sets stunning Serena Frome, Cambridge grad and daughter of a reserved Anglican bishop and his sometimes-frustrated stay-at-home wife. Everyone has always considered Serena both beautiful and clever, but as her story unfolds, it becomes clear that despite her gifts, she has never been good at charting her own course. Although she loves literature, she studied mathematics at Cambridge because her mother wanted Serena to have a career, not simply to marry. Unemployed and recently dumped by the older man with whom she had been sharing what she thought was a uniquely wonderful affair, Serena finds herself—almost without having done much to make it happen—working for MI5. There, because of her love of reading, she is drafted into Sweet Tooth, a clandestine program designed to nurture writers MI5 determines will be supportive of the government.
As her story unfolded, I worried about Serena. She drifts—wouldn’t MI5 be a dangerous place to drift?—and while she may be clever, she is intellectually lazy and never as aware of what is happening around her as she needs to be. She is immature but passionate, foolish and romantic, but while I was flabbergasted that her handlers didn’t give up on Serena, I never did.
And this is because of McEwan. He proves that a good writer cares deeply about his characters. And as he did in Atonement (a better book), in Sweet Tooth, McEwan demonstrates that he is as interested in the nature of storytelling as he is in telling a story. Whatever you think of Serena, when you finish Sweet Tooth, you’ll chuckle to yourself and say about the author, “I can’t believe he pulled that off!”