Friday, May 17, 2013

Historical Fiction: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

This is my first Ian McEwan novel, as I haven't even read Atonement, which, as most of you know, now also exists as a movie starring Kiera Knightly. Sweet Tooth is McEwan's most recent novel, and takes place in 1970s England. It includes his first female narrator since Atonement, and it involves that interesting tension that can crop up when business meets pleasure.

The Situation: Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) grew up in a nice small city in the east of England, where her father was is an Anglican Bishop. She had a fairly quiet life with him, her mother, and her younger sister Lucy. But Serena was a different sort of girl in that she was very good at mathematics, which, in the 1970s, wasn't something people were used to. Serena may have been good at math, but her first love was reading. She initially intended to study English at Durham or Aberystwyth, but after much insistence from her mother to not waste her talent and her life, Serena ends up studying math at Newnham College, Cambridge. It is here that she discovers that she isn't really that great at math. Even so, she manages to finish her degree, have a few boyfriends, one pretty grand affair that ends terribly, and can report back to her mother after graduation that she has landed a job in London with The Department of Health and Social Security.

The Problem: Serena didn't land a job with The Department of Health and Social Security. She had actually scored a job with the British Security Service, or MI5. But within 18 months, Serena would be fired after having disgraced both herself and the man she was involved with. Basically, Serena bit off more than she could chew. At first she is hired on as nothing more than a desk jockey or paper pusher. But soon, a coworker informs the higher ups that while Serena may have studied math at Cambridge, she is actually quite the reader and is very familiar with books in almost every way, and knew about the major contemporary authors of the time. After an intimidating interview, Serena is chosen to work on Sweet Tooth, a project that attempts to find writers whose views line up with what England is trying to achieve during the Cold War, and support them financially so they can keep writing. It sounds simple enough, and it is, but even before taking on this assignment, Serena is having a hard time knowing who to trust in her job, and secrets about the past keep cropping up and affecting her future.

Genre, Themes, History: I decided to go ahead and stick with the historical fiction label only because Serena's job with MI5 involves so much that was going on with the politics of 1970s England, as well as the Cold War. Not only is England dealing with Russia, but the US also has to be dealt with in another way, and then there is turmoil and an economic crisis going on within England too. The biggest theme I found throughout the novel was the importance of truth, and how it can be used and manipulated to achieve what different people, and what different agencies, wish to get out of certain people and interactions. Also, the majority of the book takes place during Serena's early 20s. So McEwan explores that interesting time in a person's life when they've just graduated from college and are out looking for that job that will make all that time and money spent at school worthwhile. And, as a woman in the 1970s, in a field that was heavily dominated by men, Serena has to navigate a world in which she is often an unwelcome minority, and people are waiting for a chance to send her off.

McEwan admitted that parts of the novel were autobiographical, but not the parts about Serena. Parts of McEwan's life enter the story when Serena meets that writer she is supposed to sign up for the Sweet Tooth project. Parts of Tom Haley's life, and even some of his stories that Serena reads, are very similar to McEwan's, although the author laments that he was never approached by a beautiful woman and offered a mass amount of money from the government.

My Verdict: While this is a well-written and well thought out book, I can see why it initially received mixed reviews from the critics. Serena is the type of young, naive, and somewhat full of herself narrator that I try to avoid when picking out a book. However, because she is telling this story some time later, she is honest about who she was, what she did, and admits to being naive and full of herself. Even so, it becomes clear from the beginning of the book that she is a character that is perpetually in over her head and suffers for it. She also often rationalizes doing the wrong thing in order to get what she wants, only to have it come back on her in the end. One character sums the situation up nicely when he plainly states that she is more trouble than she is worth, and that can be hard for a reader to deal with in a narrator. Otherwise, the book is actually quite lovely and incredibly interesting. When Serena is reading Tom's stories, a detailed synopsis of each story is given to the reader, and they all seemed incredibly fascinating, at least to me. So not only did McEwan create an interesting novel, but he also created several interesting short stories as well to be described within the novel. Granted, as I have stated before, some of Tom's stories are similar to some of McEwan's earlier work. And in the end, it is revealed that the entire narrative isn't quite what it seems. No, all the characters aren't dead, but there is somewhat of a twist to it. It was a little weak in my opinion, but still an interesting way to end the story.

Favorite Moment: Any time Serena was reading one of Tom's stories and describing it to the reader. If his stories were as engaging as what she described, then it makes me wish the stories are real so I can read them myself.

Favorite Character: I think my favorite character was Tom, the writer that Serena ends up securing for Sweet Tooth. He is a genuine guy who simply loves what he does and isn't pretending to be something else, while most of the characters in the book are constantly hiding something due to the nature of what they do for a living.

Recommended Reading: For this book, I had a hard time coming up with a recommendation. So if you're looking for an interesting adventure with some humor, set in modern-day England, the I recommend Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. But if you want a story with more of a political twist that is set in the states and reads slightly more like an Ian Fleming novel, then I recommend True Believers by Kurt Anderson.

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