McEwan’s newest novel falls short of expectations
Whether or not you have heard of the English novelist Ian McEwan, you have likely heard of his work. With popular and critically acclaimed film adaptations such as “Atonement” and “Enduring Love,” McEwan’s work has at least become familiar to American audiences, if not a household name.
While McEwan gains popularity from the movies based on his novels, he continues to write. In keeping with many of his other books, McEwan’s latest effort, “Sweet Tooth,” is a period piece. Set in the early 1970s, “Sweet Tooth” follows a female agent of the British version of the CIA, the famed MI5.
Dealing with the gathering of intelligence and espionage, “Sweet Tooth” is a novel founded in deception. Bosses deceive underlings. Friends lie to friends. Lovers betray their loves. Ultimately, however, it is the reader who winds up feeling deceived and perhaps betrayed.
At the heart of the deception is secret agent Serena Frome. While the idea of a female spy is intriguing, the storyline and characters leave something to be desired. Frome, while well-educated and attractive, is not a character on par with other notable fictional British spies such as James Bond.
Frome’s character is an all-too-flawed portrayal of a female agent. McEwan had a great idea, however, as Frome almost always comes across as an insecure woman dependent on her male superiors and love interests for validation. She is Cambridge-educated, yet her intellect is constantly undermined by her need for male approval.
One might argue this was simply par for the course during the 1970s, but given the artistic license an author enjoys, one could counter that McEwan should have used his leverage to create a stronger female protagonist. Moreover, had he done so, the novel would have been far more engaging and entertaining.
The other characters in the book — mostly male — also come up short. For the most part, they are unlikable and give the reader little respite from the generally bleak story line that the novel offers up.
One department in which the novel excels is its setting. With vivid descriptions of 1970s England, McEwan gives the reader a good sense of the zeitgeist of the era. With its frequent mention of the Irish Republican Army and its nefarious activities, a reader can easily picture the fear that gripped the nation during this time period.
McEwan is a phenomenal author who is a much better writer than this novel would indicate. Anyone who has read his other books, such as “Atonement,” “On Chesil Beach” or “Saturday,” would readily admit the talent he possesses.
McEwan has a facility with engaging the reader in his unusual, yet interesting plots and characters. In “Saturday,” for example, McEwan creates a character that is an expert neurosurgeon who, by random turns of events, becomes the target of a group of hoodlums and is forced to fall back on his expertise to save himself and his family.
“Saturday” is one good example of the many books where McEwan displays his broad interests and ability to develop fascinating characters that were clearly well-researched. “Sweet Tooth,” in contrast, does not measure up to his lofty standard. Unfortunately, the book bogs the reader down in a morass of unlikable characters. Consequentially, “Sweet Tooth” is a difficult book to recommend.