Ian McEwan’s ‘Sweet Tooth’

I had first heard the book is horrible, which may be why I gobbled it up all the more… and am still digesting.

Last November, NPR posted a scathing review of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, saying the author’s “postmodernist narrative ‘tricks’ simply serve as weapons of mass destruction.” Ouch. I usually don’t see such disdain on the site, so was immediately intrigued. I’m also a fan of McEwan. Now I just had to wait for the book to escape the hundreds of other fans on the months-long library waiting list.

Well, I just finished the book and would like to express that I loved it. In short, Sweet Tooth is about an MI5 spy who lives a double life recruiting an unknowing novelist into one of her agency’s post-Cold War operations and simultaneously falling in love with him. NPR’s critic read the story as an attack on the typical female’s fondness for fiction, the ending as a “last sneer of a plot twist.” Where she saw a “genderized disdain for female readers,” however, I saw a clever exploration of fiction, fiction’s roots in real life, and the way individuals perceive themselves. And I thought the twist was terrific.

Sweet Tooth resolves dozens of small, accumulated mysteries less by answering them and more by blanketing them under a bigger, more important final question for both us and the main character to ponder. That’s not everyone’s idea of a good ending (one of my friends eschews such endings like no other), but through the very last chapter, I felt my heart rate quicken and an inner smile starting to spark. I didn’t need the thinning number of remaining pages to tell me that the plot was wrapping up… but it also unravels into something else, too. I was surprised, and that’s when I knew! Sweet Tooth was claiming a spot on my favorite books list, likely to escape my tongue the next time someone asks me for a recommendation.

I realized that my favorite books often share endings that, similarly, look like an open door, a lingering thought, a new view of the world I need time to consider. Or, what do they call food that really fills you up for a while? A rib-sticker? I think I love rib-sticker books. For example, Northern Lights, 1984, Roald Dahl’s story “The Sound Machine,” planted obstinate questions in my head that kept growing long after I closed the back cover, and still I wonder about the ways they affect my life thereafter.

Who says that poetry makes nothing happen? [The mission] succeeded because invention, the imagination, drove the intelligence.”

That’s said by one of Sweet Tooth‘s characters describing an 1943 MI5 op whose strategy was derived from a 1937 novel called The Milliner’s Hat Mystery, which was written by Ian Fleming, future creator of James Bond. Such is the way Ian McEwan installs the fictional world into our own; even his Acknowledgments page, filled to the brim with the authors of MI5 histories and biographies, attests to fact’s complex relationship with fiction. And, of course, sealed my fondness for Sweet Tooth all the more.

It’s remarkable how differently two readers can absorb the same content. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan found the book insulting to her female sensibilities, and I found it calling me to self-reflection. One thing’s for sure, though: we both took “Sweet Tooth” to heart.

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