Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth is that oddest of literary achievements: an ingenious novel that I compulsively read, intellectually admired and increasingly hated. By the time I got to McEwan’s last sneer of a plot twist, I felt that reading Sweet Tooth is the closest I ever want to come to the experience of watching a snuff film. Think that’s harsh? Open up Sweet Tooth and find out what McEwan thinks of you, Dear Reader, particularly if you’re a woman, as most readers of fiction are. Open up ‘Sweet Tooth’ and find out what McEwan thinks of you, Dear Reader, particularly if you’re a woman, as most readers of fiction are.
Our heroine here is a young woman named Serena Frome who devours 19th- and 20th-century fiction — everything from Jane Austen to Jacqueline Susann to Muriel Spark. Several times in Sweet Tooth, Serena discusses her reading tastes, much to the exasperation of her brainy novelist boyfriend. Serena says, “I wanted characters I could believe in and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love. … It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end.” Later on, Serena adds, “I didn’t like tricks.” Oh, what fun McEwan has squirting acid over everything simple Serena — clearly, the Common (Female) Reader — enjoys in a novel.McEwan deploys his great gifts of storytelling to draw readers into an intricate plot about Serena’s career during the 1970s, working as a low-level operative for MI5, the British internal intelligence service. Then, by novel’s end, McEwan ridicules us readers for ever believing in Serena and the fictional world he’s blown breath into.