Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. The year is 1972. Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency. The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight goes on, especially in the cultural sphere.
Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a ‘secret mission’ that brings her into the literary world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories; then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life? And who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one.
McEwan’s mastery dazzles us in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal and intrigue, love, and the invented self.
©2012 Ian McEwan (P)2012 Random House Audiobooks
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Credibility is hard to maintain and this novel grows ever more unlikely, precious and unloveable with every page.
Juliet Stevenson's matter of fact story telling is wonderful. She inhabits the Serena character, sexy, intelligent, its just brilliant
Lots of twists , I had no idea where it was going and did not expect the ending.
"Slow moving but well worth reading"
I spent alot of the book wondering when we would get there but as I carried on I felt I enjoyed the journey and once you get to the end the middle bit makes more sense so dont give up on it and stay to the end
"Sweet Tooth Fails to Sweeten"
Serena Frome, a beautiful student of maths and an avid reader, has an affair with a college don at Cambridge University and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. It’s 1972. Britain is in crisis, facing a three day working week, energy supplies are low and the Cold War staggers on. Serena is given a role in Sweet Tooth, MI5’s cultural attack on communism. It sounds like a dream post: she has to pretend she works for a charitable organisation that wishes to promote young writers. Her charge is Tom Haley, a short story writer who teaches at Suffolk University. Serena promises Tom a life free of financial worries, in return for a novel, which MI5 hopes will be be Orwell-esque in its satirical attack on the Eastern Block.
We learn, in detail, about Tom’s short stories, which Serena loves. After meeting Tom, she rapidly falls in love with him too. Their courtship is gilded, glowing against the grey backdrop of economic misery: courtesy of the tax payer, they sip chablis and eat oysters every weekend. It sounds literally wonderful: a literary spy novel with two beautiful, deceptive protagonists at its heart.
Sadly Sweet Tooth is rather dull. We learn in great detail about novelists in the seventies and the state of that nation as if we are reading an Economist’s guide to the era.
The food, somewhat unseventies-like, is described in incandescent detail, in comparison to the rest of the novel’s pedestrian prose. Although the novel is assuredly written and Serena is a well-thought out character, her relationship with Tom lacks life, charm, credibility. There is no emotional heart to the novel.
There is the most fantastic twist at the end of Sweet Tooth; a twist that serves to make everything that went before seem merely an introduction. It is a novel in one act, with its solitary climax.
I listened to Sweet Tooth as an audiobook whilst I was exercising: it kept me going through numerous leg lifts and arm twirls, but had I not been multi-tasking, I doubt I would have persevered. It was wonderfully and thoughtfully-read by Juliet Stevenson, which helped.
"Hoping it improves"
I bought this to listen to in the car whilst driving my teenage daughter to her grandmother's house 6 hours away. I had read a good but brief review of it in a weekend broadsheet. I thought it would be an interesting spy drama that would appeal to her and also keep me interested on the boring drive. We have listened to the first download so far- about 5 hours of it- and it is not living up to its hype. It is a rather pedestrian telling largely of an affair between a middle aged man and a young student, which at times borders on the excrutiatingly embarassing when listening with ones daughter. So far no evidence of spying, no intrigue, no excitement so not what I was expecting at all. I am not sure if we will carry on listening.
"Well written, well read- but side tracked"
My thoughts about this book are mixed. This is a well written book about a women spy during the Cold War. I enjoyed the historical aspects of this story and remember this era from my childhood. However I think I was expecting a bit more excitement from a spy story. Also I found the stories within the stories a bit confusing.
The book took some surprising turns but I didn't feel it was wrapped up enough for me at the end.
"Spoiled by the ending"
I agree with one reviewer that William Boyd does the spy stuff better - for me it was in Restless which also has a female central character. But I enjoyed the book, partly because it evoked elements of my own student days and early 20s and partly because it is, at least at the beginning, a good tale well told. I thought McEwan got inside Serena and her time very well. I also liked the artifice of the stories within the the story. But the contrived ending was a real disappointment and tainted the rest of the book for me afterwards. Brilliantly read by Juliet Stephenson.
Not one of McEwan's best but still pretty good. Juliet Stevenson's voice was perfect and it was very atmospheric and kept my interest throughout. Good ending too.
at the first glance it’s far from being bad, but I was expecting much more. was expecting a couple of stings or bites in retro style. the author’s talent is evident - as with Solar - where he also missed a grand opportunity and my full attention. when one’s writing becomes manneristic, a long winded stylistic exercise of self-serving loops of bravura, it’s time to take a leave of absence, in preparation for another “Atonement”. Juliet Stevenson saved the day. Not the first time!
"Well written but, ultimately, not that interesting"
This is the first Ian McEwan novel that I have read or listened to. It is well written and no doubt very clever in places. The trouble is, I found it very tedious. Nothing much of interest happens and after 3 hours in I must admit to getting restless. Another 5 hours in and I was seriously considering giving up. I stuck it out though, not because I particularly wanted to find out what happened, but because Ian McEwan is a highly rated writer and I thought there must be more here if I just stick with it.
This is a book, I think, about deception, perception, plus a lot about the art of writing itself, all good stuff. The narrator is looking back on an early episode in her life which, unfortunately, she manages to convey in a manner which made it seem tedious. When summarising events it sounds quite good, but somehow becomes dreary and uninteresting in the telling. Yes, there's lots of everyday detail but you need to balance this against dramatic events. Much has been said about the twist at the end, but as twists go its ok. It doesn't make you go 'wow'. When you reflect on it you realise that, yes, it's not surprising that it should end that way and it is appropriate to the story.
I think this book is best read rather than listened to. I'm sure that there is a lot hidden in the text that I missed and would have benefitted from re-reading passages to gain that extra insight. Only three stars though for being clever and well written but ultimately not that interesting.
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