To stir the pot further there’s also some story-within-story excerpts as sexually liberal heroine Serena devours the works of her aspiring novelist lover providing a detailed synopsis of several of his stories. Quite a lot going on here then all told.
When Cambridge Maths graduate Serena Frome is introduced to Cambridge Don Tony Canning it’s the start of an affair that leads to a place with MI5. Tony, it transpires, has friends in stuffy places and reckons sexy Serena with her blonde hair, min-skirt and ‘progressive’ sexual attitudes (we are in the 70s) could be the type of honey that attracts the wrong type of bees.
Bishop’s daughter (why is fiction so crammed full of Bishop’s daughters?) Serena soon finds herself in the shady world of cold war espionage – albeit somewhat superficially as a junior dogsbody. A reluctant Maths graduate Serena has however always wanted to study Literature so spends her free time devouring novels.
It just so happens that MI5 are starting some kind of scheme – the precise nature of which is never quite clarified – to foster young writers, presumably of the anti-communist persuasion.
Having been jilted by Tony, the sultry Serena is offered a mission: to mentor Tom Haley, a promising writer who fits MI5’s bill. Unaware of any secret service connection Haley falls under Serena’s spell and the couple begin a torrid affair that takes place in the writer’s Brighton flat. Work transforms into pleasure, lots and lots of it…
Blimey this girl is insatiable! Why do such women – wanton and up for it at the drop of a hat - why do they only ever exist in the pages of fiction?
The fly in the ointment however is that Tom believes his sex-crazed young contact is indeed a bona-fide literary svengali, a young lady who simply idolises his work. He realises not (or so we think) that in actuality he’s being groomed by Whitehall.
As ever with McEwan there are some particularly well-written passages here. Tom and Serena’s lust-at-first site affair is handled with some aplomb, plenty of pre- and post-coital stuff, the sort of things that lovers do even if arriving at this point has involved diversions a-plenty: Serena does seem to be passed along from one chap to the other.
And so it all bounds along well enough. An artist and his muse, week-end lovers, young, overflowing with optimism but for all that never truly believable or indeed likeable. And what about that fly in the ointment? Serena has not been truthful. What will Tom say when he finds out she is an MI5 agent? Will that be the end of a beautiful affair?
Typically with Mr McEwan the novel promises more than it is capable of delivering. The whole MI5 thing is a red herring – this is an espionage thriller in suggestion only, merely a ruse to set up the heroine’s dilemma.
And when the novel ends with a letter – a very literary letter in which Tom makes a confession of his own, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that it all feels a little stagey, less than satisfying. It’s not that twists don’t have their place in fiction, it’s that in order to succeed they need to feel organic rather than literary.
Deaths on remote Scandinavian islands, letters from ex-lovers, thin characters, Sweet Tooth could be a fairly standard romantic read, but it is one serioulsy compromised by a millieu and plot that tries far too hard to be ingenious.