"My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn't return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing."
A very promising author with a very promising first sentence, I have been looking forward to reading Sweet Tooth (2012) by Ian McEwan since I first saw it. I've read some of McEwan's other works and always been impressed with his realism, characterization, attention to detail, and use of language. Now that I've read Sweet Tooth, I'm certainly impressed, although I don't think I can recommend it without some reservations.
Told from Serena's perspective, this novel follows her life for a relatively short period of time directly following her graduation from Cambridge and her first job at MI5 in London. Set in the highly political atmosphere and Cold War years of the 1970's in London, Serena is given an assignment to [sort of] help with the propaganda war against Communism. And it doesn't go as planned.
The plot sounded quite exciting, but there were a couple of things that kept me from getting too invested in this book. First, the atmosphere of the setting and time period is one that I am not familiar with. I am no history buff. Of course, I know about the Cold War, but political events in England that occurred before I was born [and that do not involve a large war] are an especially weak point. Unfortunately for me, McEwan's writing used names, places, and events--without much explanation--to evoke some feeling of the time. But naming a bunch of unknown places and events was more boring than helpful. I can imagine that someone who lived in London (or even England) during this time period might find this novel more relatable.
My second issue was that throughout the novel, I felt that I was not getting a good idea of Serena's feelings. Even though it was written almost like a diary entry, it felt like Serena didn't care about anything. She just passively went about her life, liking guys and then not liking them without much angst or outward feeling. I wondered if this was because McEwan, as a man, was just not able to get into Serena's feelings, but I'd already seen McEwan do wonderful characterizations of women in Atonement and On Chesil's Beach.
These issues with the book did make it harder to read. There were parts in the center of this novel where I paid more attention to how much more I had to read than what was going on in the story. I found much of the Cold War bureaucracy especially trying. But I always liked the descriptions of Serena and her relationships. I also appreciated the descriptions of Serena's life in a male-dominated field, how she was treated, and the inherent limitations that came with being a woman in that time period. Finally, the book picked up significantly near the end. There was some very satisfying betrayal and surprise that tied everything together in a way that made this novel much more complex and layered than I had thought it was and made me glad I had read it.
The end of the novel has the excitement and dread that comes when your lover is about to realize you've been lying to him the entire time you've known him. I was definitely surprised when I learned that it was Tom who was really telling Serena's story. For me, it fit in with Serena's complete lack of power as a woman in that world. Her powerlessness and the disbelief and quick judgment of her was bad enough, and then she wasn't even able to tell her own story. I also wondered if McEwan had deliberately limited Serena's feelings in the book, trying to make it read more like it was written by a man who knew her than someone describing herself.