“Author of Atonement” is printed right on the cover. For anyone who was swept away by the epically tragic romance of either the movie or the book, this simple phrase is enough. I had fallen in love with Ian McEwan’s prose upon my first reading of Atonement and with the author himself upon his charming visit to UT my senior year of college, yet I had struggled to find another of his works with a story that appealed to me. And then came Sweet Tooth.
The marketing was brilliant. Along with that perfect phrase, “Author of Atonement”, right on the cover, it was billed as the first Ian McEwan novel with a female protagonist since Atonement. Atonement, Atonement, Atonement. Sweet Tooth = The next Atonement. I had to have this book.
Sweet Tooth traces our heroine, Serena Frome, as she navigates love, life, and MI5 in the 1970s. A spy story, too??? A female James Bond??? It’s even better! Serena ultimately is assigned to a secret mission, code name Sweet Tooth, designed to promote democratic values and show support for those oppressed culture creators behind the Iron Curtain through the development of British arts, literature, and culture. Of course, with Serena’s messy love life guiding almost her every move, she falls in love with Tom Haley, her assigned author, and difficulties ensue.
I almost said, “Chaos ensues,” but that would be misleading. You see, for all the engrossing set-up (for me, anyway), this novel was a total disappointment. Why? For many reasons, but mainly because NOTHING HAPPENED! Not a single thing. There were moments that were striving to be of import, to move the plot along, but they never quite made it, like a little kid trying his damnedest to get on that tall chair and never succeeding. So, if nothing happens, chaos cannot ensue.
Part of the problem is that I simply did not care for Serena. It’s not that I disliked her. I just felt nothing for her. And it’s not her fault, entirely. McEwan does nothing to make her distinctive or likeable or unlikable. His female spy heroine is flat, one-dimensional, neutral. She simply exists. Merely existing does not allow for drama, conflict, love, death, pain, passion, anything. One cannot engage in a book where the protagonist simply…exists.
Speaking of passion, there is none. Haley is either too engrossed in his work or too drunk to pay much real attention to Serena, so the inevitable declaration of love feels rote and a bit vague. In turn, Max’s declaration to Serena feels comical as there was virtually no set up for a relationship between them. The little that exists was clearly, at least to me, in Serena’s head. I actually thought for a while Max was perpetrating a cruel practical joke at Serena’s expense as I had no other logical explanation.
Finally, there are tons of truly inventive structural ideas hinted at or hesitatingly employed in the book, but none of these structural quirks never leave their fledgling stages, causing them to remain…well, quirks. Serena describes at least three of Haley’s short stories in the first half of the book, but why didn’t McEwan carry this throughout the entire book, perhaps using the short stories to comment even more on the action, or lack there of, of the novel? Or why stop at describing the stories? Why not actually write out the short stories, allowing the book to function both as a novel and a short story collection? Instead, we are left with a structural revelation in the last few pages that is clearly meant to shock and awe but instead feels derivative of the structural revelation at the end of Atonement. (If you wish to read a vague but slightly revealing spoiler alert regarding this “revelation,” continue after the next paragraph.)
Ah, yes, that ever-present comparison to Atonement. In my opinion, Atonement is a masterpiece (though I do apologize if you feel I am overselling it). Sweet Tooth is a diversion, a mediocre rom-com dressed up as a “serious” drama. Again, not bad, per se. I’ve read much worse. But disappointing, certainly. However, McEwan’s way with words is gobsmackingly creative, edgy, and lovely, and I would recommend reading it, if for nothing else, to spend some time in McEwan’s prose.
In order for a ploy to undermine the reliability of the narrator to work, to discombobulate the reader and confuse their understanding of who is actually telling the story, the reader must care for the characters and feel invested in the story. The shock that much of Atonement is false, a fiction created by Briony to explain and finish the tragic story of her past, is gut-wrenching because we, the readers, feel Briony’s guilt, shame, and desire to fix things, Cecilia and Robbie’s anger and their passionate, desperate love for each other, and the total horror of the events following Briony’s epic mistake. In Sweet Tooth, we feel nothing but mild irritation, perhaps. And so, it does not work. According to several characters in the book, Haley is an immensely talented author who should be able to do that. So should McEwan. He is better than that.
***END SPOILER ALERT***