I devoured “Sweet Tooth” like an ice cream addict given a dish of Ben & Jerry’s after a month of restraint.
Even better, I listened to this on audio CD, narrated by Juliet Stevenson. (Apparently I must now listen to Stevenson’s readings of unabridged Jane Austen works because I can’t get enough of her gorgeous English accent; her reading is terrific and gives even more atmosphere to a series of terribly British scenes, including the pubs and trains. And since McEwan is writing across gender—all of “Sweet Tooth” is told from first-person female point of view—Stevenson makes this story delectable.)
In “Sweet Tooth,” Stevenson (and McEwan) put us inside the head of one Serena Frome, a speed-reading fan of both pulp fiction and challenging literature. We’re in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and Serena is drawn or sucked or seduced into the world of British Security Service.
We follow Frome quickly through her youth and she is a bit of a drifter, not exactly in charge of her life. “The half hour it took me to wander from Regent Street to the Charing Cross Road arranged my fate for me. I changed my mind, I decided to take the job after all and have order and purpose in my life and some independence.” This sheltered daughter of an Anglican bishop is soon being sent on a spy mission, of sorts, and must mislead an obscure writer and lead him on for the greater good.
The second half of “Sweet Tooth” is a just a bit protracted—will she or won’t she reveal to the fish on her hook that she is not what she appears to be? There is much wine drinking and love-making and maneuvering and pondering and wondering and then we reach the moment, a moment foreshadowed in the opening sentence, when all comes unraveled and all that’s left to find out is who knew what. And when. For me, the stakes weren’t very high. Since Frome has told us the outcome, the only question, really, is the “how.”
The ending is one of the best stories-within-a-story endings I’ve read in a book in a long time. Neat, deft, sure. Tidy. “Sweet Tooth” hits the spot.