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Book review: “Sweet Tooth” by Ian McEwan

You know from the opening paragraph that Serena Frome is a failure as a British espionage agent. The rest of Ian McEwan's “Sweet Tooth” explains how that happens.
By Kay Dyer Published: December 16, 2012
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You know from the opening paragraph that Serena Frome is a failure as a British espionage agent. The rest of Ian McEwan's “Sweet Tooth” (Doubleday, $26.95) explains how that happens.

Serena, the daughter of an Anglican bishop, is brilliant at math but would rather spend her time reading novels. And she has a talent for reviewing them. She manages to graduate from Cambridge with honors and has a series of affairs with a variety of men.

An affair with a married college professor ends badly but brings her to the attention of MI5, the British intelligence agency. Serena is one of few women recruited and discovers she and other females are relegated to insignificant office work. It is the early 1970s, and England is in a propaganda war with the Soviet Union. The British intelligence hierarchy hopes to woo promising writers to their way of thinking in an effort to influence the public. And Serena gets a chance to advance.

She's assigned to contact Tom Haley, a young teacher and writer of quirky novels. She poses as a representative of a literary foundation which offers him financial support so he can write full time. She is fascinated by Haley's novels. And it doesn't take long for the two of them to fall madly in love. But Serena finds it more and more difficult to spy on the man she loves.

You'll find “Sweet Tooth” to be a different kind of spy novel. The story threatens to bog down a bit midway in Serena's love affairs. But McEwan's fine writing style carries you through to some surprises.

— Kay Dyer