I feel like there was a period of time where I liked Ian McEwan. I have read Atonement at least twice and loved it each time. I’ve read Enduring Love (mainly because Daniel Craig was in the film adaptation) but I thought it was good. I borrowed Amsterdam from the library when I went to Springfield to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest with My Dear Friend Sarah and then accidentally left Amsterdam in Springfield, and thus began my Never Take A Library Book On Vacation rule. (Books on CD are okay, though, because they don’t leave the car.)
I have not read every single book Ian McEwan has put out in the past decade. (In fact, the last McEwan book I read was Solar, and that was in 2011. Solar also left a very, very bad taste in my mouth.) But I was intrigued by the description in the book jacket of Sweet Tooth when I saw it in the library, and so I decided to give it a chance.
Also, I should point out here, at the beginning, that I am going to totally Monster At The End of This Book this review. To reveal the depths of my disappointment and anger, I am going to have to reveal the end of the book. So please, consider this your SPOILER ALERT, and do not continue to read if you do not want the end of the book ruined.
This will be your only warning.
[Note From The Future: I will warn you once more before the spoiler actually shows up.]
This novel is ostensibly about Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume”), who is also our narrator. She’s a girl who has a love of books and novels and wants to major in English in college, but her mother forces her to major in Maths at Oxford instead. She does keep reading novels throughout the book, however, and turns her love of novel-reading into a series in her university magazine:
[…] She asked me to write a regular column, “What I Read Last Week.” My brief was to be “chatty and omnivorous.” Easy! I wrote as I talked, usually doing little more than summarizing the plots of the books I had just raced through, and, in conscious self-parody, I heightened the occasional verdict with a row of exclamation marks. [p. 6-7]
GEE THAT SOUNDS LIKE SOMEONE I KNOW ONLY WITH LESS CAPSLOCK AND MORE EXCLAMATION MARKS I SHOULD PROBABLY LIKE THIS BOOK RIGHT
In her last semester at university, her mentor and lover, Tony Canning, begins grooming her towards a career in civil intelligence at MI-5. Serena and Tony would spend the weekend together at Tony’s cottage out of town, while his wife is away. Or maybe it’s during the week and he goes home on weekends. Whatever, it doesn’t really matter – Serena and Tony are fucking, and Tony’s wife doesn’t know.
One day (weekend or otherwise, it really doesn’t matter), Serena gets a stain or something on her blouse, and Tony tells her to leave it in the laundry basket. That weekend, Tony breaks up with her, because Tony’s wife found the blouse in the laundry basket.
So Serena – and I’m never really sure who she’s telling her story to, because this book is written in the first person, but the plot isn’t happening to Serena as she’s relating it to whoever – it’s like she’s writing a novel about her plot and – well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The break-up. In her first reactions, Serena rationalizes Tony’s behavior, but does not relate her own feelings to the reader:
[Tony] had decided to cast himself as the victim, the wronged, the deceived, the rightly furious. He had persuaded himself that he had said nothing to me about the laundry basket. The memory had been erased, and for a purpose. But now he didn’t even know he’d erased it. He wasn’t even pretending. He actually believed in his disappointment. He really did think that I had done something devious and mean. He was protecting himself from the idea that he’d had a choice. [p. 29]
She just got broken up with. Dumped, even. She is our narrator, our window to the story. Where are her emotions? Where are her reactions?
[In all fairness, Serena may have discussed her emotions during this (and other) time(s) in the book. Y’all know that I don’t really take good notes, and then I write these months after reading the book so finer details get lost all the damn time. And to be honest, I probably noted that quote above because it reminded me of a certain person who kept telling me that his truck wasn’t abandoned in a parking garage, that it had been to a mechanic multiple times, and those stories had gone on for so long that it’s entirely possible that that certain person may have come to believe their own lies. I most likely didn’t even pick out this quote because of the book, but because of my own stupid little plot points that happen behind the computer screen.
Whatever. I’m rambling. But you get my point.]
So anyway. Serena interviews with MI-5 and gets the job – some lower-level, analyst position or something, very bottom of the totem pole. Her supervisor is Max Greatorex, and yes, that is a name a character was given. Whatever. Anyway, somehow Max takes a shine to her – or maybe she lobbied for a bigger role, again, whatever – and after a few chapters or so Max promotes her to junior agent and puts her on the Sweet Tooth project.
Have I mentioned that Sweet Tooth takes place in the 1970s? So, in the ‘70s, Great Britain was … I don’t know, in the midst of an economic crisis and there were worries in amongst the government nerds that the rabble would rise up and overtake the monarchy and Parliament and turn to socialism. Or something. Whatever. So this Sweet Tooth project was designed to a) find poor, unknown writers and b) convince those writers that they have won a grant so s/he can write the next great British novel, and c) their contact at this grant foundation will also work as their editor, and d) the “editor” will help the writer show that the British government is jolly good, pip pip cheerio, no socialism to see here folks, wink wink nudge nudge, say no more.
[… isn’t Monty Python’s Flying Circus on Netflix now?]
[oh shit it is and now I will never get this goddamned review done]
And that’s how Serena meets Tom Haley.
So Tom Haley has written a couple of short stories and they were okay, but not great. He’s teaching at a college near Brighton and Serena travels down there, reading his short stories and commenting on them in her head. And, full disclosure, I cannot recall whether this particular story was one of those first or if it was one Tom wrote after meeting Serena, but whatever, it works here:
One story, completed in a first draft by the end of November, was narrated by a talking ape prone to anxious reflections about his lover, a writer struggling with her second novel. She has been praised for her first. Is she capable of another just as good? She is beginning to doubt it. The indignant ape hovers at her back, hurt by the way she neglects him for her labors. Only on the last page did I discover that the story I was reading was actually the one the woman was writing. The ape doesn’t exist, it’s a specter, the creature of her fretful imagination. No. And no again. Not that. Beyond the strained and ludicrous matter of cross-species sex, I instinctively distrusted this kind of fictional trick. I wanted to feel the ground beneath my feet. There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust. [p. 183]
SERIOUSLY. Please read the above quote a couple of times and see if you can figure out what it means.
So let me jump ahead. Tom and Serena end up falling into bed together and she keeps reading his works and commenting on them. He writes a novella, and according to Serena, it’s terrible. It’s dystopian, it doesn’t have any hope to it – it’s like if Divergent didn’t have that quasi-romance going for it, as far as I can tell. And Serena is not impressed with Tom’s attitude towards society that comes out in his writing:
Here were the luxury and privilege of the well-fed man scoffing at all hopes of progress for the rest. T.H. Haley owed nothing to a world that nurtured him kindly, liberally educated him for free, sent him to no wars, brought him to manhood without scary rituals or famine or fear of vengeful gods, embraced him with a handsome pension in his twenties and placed no limits on his freedom of expression. This was an easy nihilism that never doubted that all we had made was rotten, never thought to pose alternatives, never derived hope from friendship, love, free markets, industry, technology, trade and all the arts and sciences. [p. 186]
GEE WHAT DOES THAT SOUND LIKE
DOES THAT SOUND LIKE MALE WHITE PRIVILEGE TO YOU TOO
OH GOOD IT’S NOT JUST ME
Anyways. Serena keeps reporting back to Max Greatorex on Tom’s progress (or lack thereof), and there’s a whole bit about how Serena and Max flirted with each other a lot, but when Serena made a move Max told her he was engaged, so she backed off, but now that she’s with Tom Max is super jealous about it and it’s all sorts of bullshit. But what really happens is Max gets so pissed at the fact that Serena’s fucking an asset (essentially) that Max gets Tom alone and Max tells Tom everything. And I mean everything.
That Serena works for MI-5. That the novel writing is just a front for anti-communist manifestos. That Serena had the hots for Max and her affair with Tom was just a front.
Big ol’ pile of bullshit.
The Sweet Tooth operation gets revealed in the papers as well. I don’t think that was the work of Max; I can’t remember, and I didn’t write it down. But the penultimate chapter is Serena fretting about her relationship with Tom, and how she can repair it in light of these revelations.
So here is where I get to the Monster at the End of This Book. If you want to remain unspoiled (though you may have an idea of what might be happening if you were paying attention), please hit the back button in your browser and wait for my next review to show up. It’s for the best.
I’m assuming if you’re still reading, you’re okay with being spoiled. So here we go.
Serena returns to the flat where she and Tom stayed, and there is a complete manuscript and a letter addressed to her on the kitchen table. And these are the final paragraphs of that letter:
What I’m working my way toward is a declaration of love and a marriage proposal. Didn’t you once confide to me your old-fashioned view that this was how a novel should end, with a “Marry me”? With your permission I’d like to publish one day this book on the kitchen table. It’s hardly an apologia, more an indictment of us both, which would surely bind us further. But there are obstacles. We wouldn’t want you or Shirley or even Mr. Greatorex to languish behind bars at Her Majesty’s leisure, so we’ll have to wait until well into the twenty-first century to be clear of the Official Secrets Act. A few decades is time enough for you to correct my presumptions on your solitude, to tell me about the rest of your secret work and what really happened between you and Max, and time to insert those paddings of the backward glance: in those days, back then, these were the years of … Or how about, “Now that the mirror tells a different story, I can say it and get it out of the way. I really was pretty.” Too cruel? No need to worry, I’ll add nothing without your say-so. We won’t be rushing into print.
[…] Tonight I’ll be on a plane to Paris to stay with an old school friend who says he can give me a room for a few days. When things have quietened down, when I’ve faded from the headlines, I’ll come straight back. If your answer is a fatal no, well, I’ve made no carbon, this is the only copy and you can throw it to the flames. If you still love me and your answer is yes, then our collaboration begins and this letter, with your consent, will be Sweet Tooth’s final chapter.
Dearest Serena, it’s up to you. [p. 300-301]
FOR FUCK’S SAKE
Jesus Christ, I’m still angry about this. (GOOD.)
So. Ian McEwan tricked us again, much like he tricked the reader in Atonement. That’s why I didn’t feel like Serena’s reactions were shown to the reader – they weren’t.
Tom wrote Serena’s novel. Tom appropriated Serena’s voice and experiences, filtered them through his own perspective, and then (ostensibly) arranged to have it published. And I get that this is fiction, I really do. I guess what I’m the most mad about is the fact that Ian McEwan is kind of a dick.
“Oh, you’re reading my novel. Look, I’m writing another interesting, flawed female character with a very unique perspective! And I’ve made you like parts of her, right? You probably don’t like everything about her, but that’s okay – that’s life! But GUESS WHAT – you’re going to get to the very end of the book, at which point you will learn that it isn’t Serena who’s talking! It’s someone else! And this was all a front!
Ad best of all, you don’t even have to figure it out for yourself – I’m going to tell you! Because I’m SO FUCKING CLEVER I CAN’T NOT TELL YOU ABOUT IT AH HA HA HA!”
I expected so much better from you, Ian McEwan.
Grade for Sweet Tooth: no stars.