Part spy novel, part semi-autobiographical novel, Sweet Tooth, follows young student turned MI5 agent, Serena Frome, as she enters a relationship with an author being watched by the government. Many of the aspects relating to authors and writing are based on McEwan’s own life, but unfortunately all the espionage intrigue is purely fictional.
Cambridge student Serena Frome's beauty and intelligence make her the ideal recruit for MI5. The year is 1972. The Cold War is far from over. England's legendary intelligence agency is determined to manipulate the cultural conversation by funding writers whose politics align with those of the government. The operation is code named "Sweet Tooth." Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is the perfect candidate to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer named Tom Haley. At first, she loves the stories. Then she begins to love the man. How long can she conceal her undercover life? To answer that question, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage: trust no one.
Don’t miss Ian McEwan’s new novel, Lessons, coming in September!
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 7.88(h) x 0.84(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:June 21, 1948
Place of Birth:Aldershot, England
Education:B.A., University of Sussex, 1970; M.A., University of East Anglia, 1971
Read an Excerpt
My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.
I won’t waste much time on my childhood and teenage years. I’m the daughter of an Anglican bishop and grew up with a sister in the cathedral precinct of a charming small city in the east of England. My home was genial, polished, orderly, book-filled. My parents liked each other well enough and loved me, and I them. My sister Lucy and I were a year and a half apart and though we fought shrilly during our adolescence, there was no lasting harm and we became closer in adult life. Our father’s belief in God was muted and reasonable, did not intrude much on our lives and was just sufficient to raise him smoothly through the Church hierarchy and install us in a comfortable Queen Anne house. It overlooked an enclosed garden with ancient herbaceous borders that were well known, and still are, to those who know about plants. So, all stable, enviable, idyllic even. We grew up inside a walled garden, with all the pleasures and limitations that implies.
The late sixties lightened but did not disrupt our existence. I never missed a day at my local grammar school unless I was ill. In my late teens there slipped over the garden wall some heavy petting, as they used to call it, experiments with tobacco, alcohol and a little hashish, rock and roll records, brighter colors and warmer relations all round. At seventeen my friends and I were timidly and delightedly rebellious, but we did our schoolwork, we memorized and disgorged the irregular verbs, the equations, the motives of fictional characters. We liked to think of ourselves as bad girls, but actually we were rather good. It pleased us, the general excitement in the air in 1969. It was inseparable from the expectation that soon it would be time to leave home for another education elsewhere. Nothing strange or terrible happened to me during my first eighteen years and that is why I’ll skip them.
Left to myself I would have chosen to do a lazy English degree at a provincial university far to the north or west of my home. I enjoyed reading novels. I went fastI could get through two or three a weekand doing that for three years would have suited me just fine. But at the time I was considered something of a freak of naturea girl who happened to have a talent for mathematics. I wasn’t interested in the subject, I took little pleasure in it, but I enjoyed being top, and getting there without much work. I knew the answers to questions before I even knew how I had got to them. While my friends struggled and calculated, I reached a solution by a set of floating steps that were partly visual, partly just a feeling for what was right. It was hard to explain how I knew what I knew. Obviously, an exam in maths was far less effort than one in English literature. And in my final year I was captain of the school chess team. You must exercise some historical imagination to understand what it meant for a girl in those times to travel to a neighboring school and knock from his perch some condescending smirking squit of a boy. However, maths and chess, along with hockey, pleated skirts and hymn-singing, I considered mere school stuff. I reckoned it was time to put away these childish things when I began to think about applying to university. But I reckoned without my mother.
She was the quintessence, or parody, of a vicar’s then a bishop’s wifea formidable memory for parishioners’ names and faces and gripes, a way of sailing down a street in her Hermes scarf, a kindly but unbending manner with the daily and the gardener. Faultless charm on any social scale, in any key. How knowingly she could level with the tight-faced, chain-smoking women from the housing estates when they came for the Mothers and Babies Club in the crypt. How compellingly she read the Christmas Eve story to the Barnardos’ children gathered at her feet in our drawing room. With what natural authority she put the Archbishop of Canterbury at his ease when he came through once for tea and Jaffa cakes after blessing the restored cathedral font. Lucy and I were banished upstairs for the duration of his visit. All thisand here is the difficult partcombined with utter devotion and subordination to my father’s cause. She promoted him, served him, eased his way at every turn. From boxed socks and ironed surplice hanging in the wardrobe, to his dustless study, to the profoundest Saturday silence in the house when he wrote his sermon. All she demanded in returnmy guess, of coursewas that he love her or, at least, never leave her.
But what I hadn’t understood about my mother was that buried deep beneath this conventional exterior was the hardy little seed of a feminist. I’m sure that word never passed her lips, but it made no difference. Her certainty frightened me. She said it was my duty as a woman to go to Cambridge to study maths. As a woman? In those days, in our milieu, no one ever spoke like that. No woman did anything “as a woman.” She told me she would not permit me to waste my talent. I was to excel and become extraordinary. I must have a proper career in science or engineering or economics. She allowed herself the world-oyster cliche. It was unfair on my sister that I was both clever and beautiful when she was neither. It would compound the injustice if I failed to aim high. I didn’t follow the logic of this, but I said nothing. My mother told me she would never forgive me and she would never forgive herself if I went off to read English and became no more than a slightly better educated housewife than she was. I was in danger of wasting my life. Those were her words, and they represented an admission. This was the only time she expressed or implied dissatisfaction with her lot.
Then she enlisted my father“the Bishop” was what my sister and I called him. When I came in from school one afternoon my mother told me he was waiting for me in his study. In my green blazer with its heraldic crest and emblazoned mottoNisi Dominus Vanum (Without the Lord All Is in Vain)I sulkily lolled in his clubbish leather armchair while he presided at his desk, shuffling papers, humming to himself as he ordered his thoughts. I thought he was about to rehearse for me the parable of the talents, but he took a surprising and practical line. He had made some inquiries. Cambridge was anxious to be seen to be “opening its gates to the modern egalitarian world.” With my burden of triple misfortunea grammar school, a girl, an all-male subjectI was certain to get in. If, however, I applied to do English there (never my intention; the Bishop was always poor on detail) I would have a far harder time. Within a week my mother had spoken to my headmaster. Certain subject teachers were deployed and used all my parents’ arguments as well as some of their own, and of course I had to give way.
So I abandoned my ambition to read English at Durham or Aberystwyth, where I am sure I would have been happy, and went instead to Newnham College, Cambridge, to learn at my first tutorial, which took place at Trinity, what a mediocrity I was in mathematics. My Michaelmas term depressed me and I almost left. Gawky boys, unblessed by charm or other human attributes like empathy and generative grammar, cleverer cousins of the fools I had smashed at chess, leered as I struggled with concepts they took for granted. “Ah, the serene Miss Frome,” one tutor would exclaim sarcastically as I entered his room each Tuesday morning. “Serenissima. Blue-eyed one! Come and enlighten us!” It was obvious to my tutors and fellow students that I could not succeed precisely because I was a good-looking girl in a miniskirt, with blond hair curling past her shoulder blades. The truth was that I couldn’t succeed because I was like nearly all the rest of humanitynot much good at maths, not at this level. I did my best to transfer out to English or French or even anthropology, but no one wanted me. In those days the rules were tightly observed. To shorten a long, unhappy story, I stuck it out and by the end managed a third.
If I’ve rushed through my childhood and teenage years, then I’ll certainly condense my time as an undergraduate. I never went in a punt, with or without a wind‑up gramophone, or visited the Footlightstheater embarrasses meor got myself arrested at the Garden House riots. But I lost my virginity in my first term, several times over it seemed, the general style being so wordless and clumsy, and had a pleasant succession of boyfriends, six or seven or eight over the nine terms, depending on your definitions of carnality. I made a handful of good friends from among the Newnham women. I played tennis and I read books. All thanks to my mother, I was studying the wrong subject, but I didn’t stop reading. I’d never read much poetry or any plays at school, but I think I had more pleasure out of novels than my university friends, who were obliged to sweat over weekly essays on Middlemarch or Vanity Fair. I raced through the same books, chatted about them perhaps, if there was someone around who could tolerate my base level of discourse, then I moved on. Reading was my way of not thinking about maths. More than that (or do I mean less?), it was my way of not thinking.
I’ve said I was fast. The Way We Live Now in four afternoons lying on my bed! I could take in a block of text or a whole paragraph in one visual gulp. It was a matter of letting my eyes and thoughts go soft, like wax, to take the impression fresh off the page. To the irritation of those around me, I’d turn a page every few seconds with an impatient snap of the wrist. My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. 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, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say “Marry me” by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in betweenI gave them all the same rough treatment.
What famous novel pithily begins like this? The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. Isn’t it punchy? Don’t you know it? I caused amusement among my Newnham friends studying English when I told them that Valley of the Dolls was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. They laughed, they teased me for months. And they hadn’t read a line of Susann’s work. But who cared? Who really minded about the unformed opinions of a failing mathematician? Not me, not my friends. To this extent at least I was free.
The matter of my undergraduate reading habits is not a digression. Those books delivered me to my career in intelligence. In my final year my friend Rona Kemp started up a weekly magazine called ¿Quis?. Such projects rose and fell by the dozen, but hers was ahead of its time with its high–low mix. Poetry and pop music, political theory and gossip, string quartets and student fashion, nouvelle vague and football. Ten years later the formula was everywhere. Rona may not have invented it but she was among the first to see its attractions. She went on to Vogue by way of the TLS and then to an incendiary rise and fall, starting new magazines in Manhattan and Rio. The double question marks in this, her first title, were an innovation that helped ensure a run of eleven issues. Remembering my Susann moment, she asked me to write a regular column, “What I Read Last Week.” My brief was to be “chatty and omnivorous.” Easy! I wrote as I talked, usually doing little more than summarizing the plots of the books I had just raced through, and, in conscious self-parody, I heightened the occasional verdict with a row of exclamation marks. My light-headed alliterative prose went down well. On a couple of occasions strangers approached me in the street to tell me so. Even my facetious maths tutor made a complimentary remark. It was the closest I ever came to a taste of that sweet and heady elixir, student fame.
I had written half a dozen jaunty pieces when something went wrong. Like many writers who come by a little success, I began to take myself too seriously. I was a girl with untutored tastes, I was an empty mind, ripe for a takeover. I was waiting, as they said in some of the novels I was reading, for Mr. Right to come along and sweep me off my feet. My Mr. Right was a stern Russian. I discovered an author and a subject and became an enthusiast. Suddenly I had a theme, and a mission to persuade. I began to indulge myself with lengthy rewrites. Instead of talking straight onto the page, I was doing second and then third drafts. In my modest view, my column had become a vital public service. I got up in the night to delete whole paragraphs and draw arrows and balloons across the pages. I went for important walks. I knew my popular appeal would dwindle, but I didn’t care. The dwindling proved my point, it was the heroic price I knew I must pay. The wrong people had been reading me. I didn’t care when Rona remonstrated. In fact, I felt vindicated. “This isn’t exactly chatty,” she said coolly as she handed back my copy in the Copper Kettle one afternoon. “This isn’t what we agreed.” She was right. My breeziness and exclamation marks had dissolved as anger and urgency narrowed my interests and destroyed my style.
My decline was initiated by the fifty minutes I spent with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the new translation by Gillon Aitken. I picked it up straight after finishing Ian Fleming’s Octopussy. The transition was harsh. I knew nothing of the Soviet labor camps and had never heard the word “gulag.” Growing up in a cathedral precinct, what did I know of the cruel absurdities of communism, of how brave men and women in bleak and remote penal colonies were reduced to thinking day by day of nothing else beyond their own survival? Hundreds of thousands transported to the Siberian wastes for fighting for their country in a foreign land, for having been a prisoner of war, for upsetting a party official, for being a party official, for wearing glasses, for being a Jew, a homosexual, a peasant who owned a cow, a poet. Who was speaking out for all this lost humanity? I had never troubled myself with politics before. I knew nothing of the arguments and disillusionment of an older generation. Nor had I heard of the “left opposition.” Beyond school, my education had been confined to some extra maths and piles of paperback novels. I was an innocent and my outrage was moral. I didn’t use, and hadn’t even heard, the word “totalitarianism.” I probably would have thought it had something to do with refusing a drink. I believed I was seeing through a veil, that I was breaking new ground as I filed dispatches from an obscure front.
Within a week I’d read Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. The title came from Dante. His first circle of hell was reserved for Greek philosophers and consisted, as it happened, of a pleasant walled garden surrounded by hellish suffering, a garden from which escape and access to paradise was forbidden. I made the enthusiast’s mistake of assuming that everyone shared my previous ignorance. My column became a harangue. Did smug Cambridge not know what had gone on, was still going on, three thousand miles to the east, had it not noticed the damage this failed utopia of food queues, awful clothes and restricted travel was doing to the human spirit? What was to be done?
¿Quis? tolerated four rounds of my anticommunism. My interests extended to Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and that fine treatise by Milosz, The Captive Mind. I was also the first person in the world to understand Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. But my heart was always with my first love, Aleksandr. The forehead that rose like an Orthodox dome, the hillbilly pastor’s wedge of beard, the grim, gulag-conferred authority, his stubborn immunity to politicians. Even his religious convictions could not deter me. I forgave him when he said that men had forgotten God. He was God. Who could match him? Who could deny him his Nobel Prize? Gazing at his photograph, I wanted to be his lover. I would have served him as my mother did my father. Box his socks? I would have knelt to wash his feet. With my tongue!
In those days, dwelling on the iniquities of the Soviet system was routine for Western politicians and editorials in most newspapers. In the context of student life and politics, it was just a little distasteful. If the CIA was against communism, there must be something to be said for it. Sections of the Labour Party still held a candle for the aging, square-jawed Kremlin brutes and their grisly project, still sang the Internationale at the annual conference, still dispatched students on goodwill exchanges. In the Cold War years of binary thinking, it would not do to find yourself agreeing about the Soviet Union with an American president waging war in Vietnam. But at that teatime rendezvous in the Copper Kettle, Rona, even then so polished, perfumed, precise, said it was not the politics of my column that troubled her. My sin was to be earnest. The next issue of her magazine didn’t carry my byline. My space was taken up by an interview with the Incredible String Band. And then ¿Quis? folded.
Reading Group Guide
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
The introduction, biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Sweet Tooth, the latest novel by internationally-acclaimed author Ian McEwan.
About the Book
With the same dynamic force and careful, clever craft that led to the overwhelming success of his award-winning 2001 novel Atonement, Ian McEwan presents a thrilling and unexpected spy novel that is much more than it seems.
It is 1972, and the Cold War still lingers. Despite her indefatigable love of literature, Serena Frome—the young, beautiful, and independent-minded daughter of an Anglican bishop—has somehow ended up a math student at Cambridge University. She is failing at her studies and bored with her life, until a brief and tragic affair with a university professor leads to her recruitment by the British secret service. As an employee of MI5, she rises through the ranks and receives her first real assignment: a major role in Sweet Tooth, a covert operation to fund writers who will give voice to the agency’s preferred politics, in order to steer the cultural conversation and control the political-cultural mood. But Serena is unable to keep business and her personal life separate. After a stunted relationship with a superior who reveals his hidden engagement, Serena falls in love with the author she is assigned to shepherd and becomes entangled in a tricky theater of seduction and deception that culminates with a deliciously shocking twist—leaving readers eager to return to the first page and start McEwan’s latest masterpiece all over again.
Smart, funny, suspenseful, and entertaining, Sweet Tooth is also stunningly deep, reflecting a thoughtful examination of truth and identity, politics and propaganda, love, loyalty, and betrayal. Is it possible that sometimes there is no right choice? Is there such a thing as a permissible lie? What does it mean to betray? And to love? McEwan’s riveting new novel will inspire readers to ponder these questions and, also, to consider truth and fiction—not only as they pertain to the written page, but as they shape our reality as we invent ourselves and the world around us.
Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot, England in 1948. He received a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Sussex and a master’s degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia, where he was the inaugural student in a creative writing course founded and taught by the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. He is the author of twelve novels and two collections of short stories, which have been published internationally to tremendous popular and critical acclaim. McEwan has been honored with countless awards and accolades throughout his career, including the Man Booker Prize, the Shakespeare Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Jerusalem Prize, the Whitbread Novel Award, the Prix Femina Ètranger, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the Royal Society of Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He currently resides in London.
1. What is the significance of the epigraph taken from Timothy Garton-Ash’s The File: “If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person”? How does it tie in with the major themes of Sweet Tooth and McEwan’s method of characterization?
2. Why do you believe that the author chose to set a contemporary novel in the England of the 1970s during the lingering Cold War? What contemporary or otherwise timeless themes is McEwan able to treat by adopting this political-historical backdrop? In Chapter 18, Pierre speaks to MI5 of “the softest, sweetest part of the Cold War, the only truly interesting part, the war of ideas” (241). Does McEwan’s novel seem to support this sentiment? How does it treat the subject of a “war of ideas”?
3. McEwan chooses to employ a female protagonist. Is she convincing? What surprises you about her character? Consider your response and reaction to her character. Is she likeable? Are you sympathetic to her? How does the author elicit this response from readers? How is she viewed by the other characters in the novel and how does this affect your own interpretation?
4. Is Sweet Tooth truly a spy novel? How does it fulfill or defy your expectations of this genre? In addition to portraying spying for political purposes, how else is the theme of spying treated? Who in the novel is a spy? Who is spied on and for what purpose?
5. McEwan uses espionage as a device to talk about a wide range of subjects, including secrecy, trust, deception, seduction, betrayal, and truth. Who is betrayed or deceived in the novel? How do they react to these deceptions or betrayals? Are there any characters who can be trusted? How does espionage become a metaphor for the deeper concerns of the novel—in other words, how does genre come to serve as both a symbol of and disguise for theme?
6. How does Sweet Tooth compare to McEwan’s 1990 spy novel The Innocent? What do the two novels share in common? Do the works address the same themes? Though they might be assigned to the same genre, how are the two books different?
7. Serena says that “[a]ll she wanted was [her] own world, and [herself] in it, given back to [her] in artful shapes and accessible form” (105). Later in the novel she explains that she believes that “[t]here is, in [her] view an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. … The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual.” How do her statements correspond to Haley’s works? And to Sweet Tooth itself? Do both abide by this contract?
8. In Chapter 8, Serena says that “Haley had got under [her] skin, and [she] wondered if he was one of those necessary men”—an “impermissible” thought, she adds (105). What does she mean by this? Why might this characterization of Haley be considered “impermissible”?
9. Excerpts from Haley’s short stories are peppered throughout the novel. What impact does McEwan’s use of metafiction—described by The Guardian’s Julie Myerson as a Russian doll effect—have on the reader? How are the major themes of the novel mirrored—or otherwise contradicted—in Haley’s stories?
10. Serena accuses Haley of “easy nihilism” (196). What does she mean by this? Does Haley’s own world-view, in fact, seem consistent with the view touted in his apocalyptic novel? Do Serena’s observations about “easy nihilism” affect your reaction of her actions throughout the novel?
11. Pierre speaks to the employees of MI5 of “the hazardous terrain where politics and literature meet” (244). How does the novel speak to the subject of cultural freedom or control of cultural conversation? Is this topic still relevant today?
12. Why doesn’t Serena tell Tom about her work? Could she have told him? Should she have? Consider Tom’s account of his discovery of Serena’s role in Operation Sweet Tooth. What does her dilemma and Tom’s reaction seem to indicate about ethics and morality? Are the views evinced by each character consistent with or in opposition to one another?
13. What view of religion and faith is presented in the novel? Consider the descriptions of the church and evaluate Serena’s relationships with her father, The Bishop. How does his character—and her relationship with him—seem to shape Serena's character and affect her relationship with men henceforth? Revisit the scene where Serena returns home and cries on her father’s shoulder. What is his response? Is it one we might expect? What other kinds of faith are evidenced—or absent—in McEwan’s novel?
14. How does the conclusion of the book change your view or perception of the preceding events and of the characters involved? Of the book’s overall messages and themes?
15. McEwan seems to be employing first person narration, presenting an accounting as memoir. How does the shift in narration and voice affect your interpretation of the story? Are the narrators reliable? Consider the delivery of information and the relationship of this delivery to what we believe as readers and perceive as truth. How easy it for the characters to distort the truth but gain or preserve trust? How do these questions tie in with a larger conversation about propaganda treated in the novel?
16. McEwan confirms that Sweet Tooth contains semi-autobiographical elements. What are these parallels and where do these parallels diverge or end? How alike are Haley and McEwan? McEwan and Serena? What does this tell readers about the relationship between reality and fiction—or else the disparity between the two?
17. The novel contains information about writing and reading, but it also creates a dialogue about literary criticism. How do Serena and Tom differ as critics? What seems to shape their opinions? How is Tom’s own novel received by critics? How does this compare to the critique of the book by Serena or other employees of MI5? Likewise, how do Serena’s literary tastes change throughout the novel?
18. Subversion plays a major role in Sweet Tooth. Consider not only how readers’ expectations are topped, but how the characters’ expectations are consistently defied. Many of the characters are not who we expect. In addition to the complexity of Serena’s character, Canning is revealed as a spy, Jeremy confesses that he is homosexual, and Max is engaged and so forth. What, then, does the novel suggest about what we can know—or what we cannot know—about others? About our own identity?
19. What does Sweet Tooth reveal about the process of writing itself and the genesis of a work of literature? What does it reveal about reading? Consider Serena’s description of writing in Chapter 5, but also, what do Haley and his stories lend to this dialogue, or the account of Operation Mincemeat? Finally, what does the form of McEwan’s own novel contribute on this subject?
In addition to the sources cited in McEwan’s acknowledgements (323), the following books might be considered profitably alongside Sweet Tooth:
Amis, Martin. London Fields
Berberova, Nina. Moura: The Dangerous Life of the Baroness Budberg
Fleming, Ian. The Spy Who Loved Me
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything is Illuminated
Furst, Alan. Spies of Warsaw
Greene, Graham. The Confidential Agent
Greene, Graham. The Human Factor
Greene, Graham. Our Man in Havana
Greene, Graham. The Quiet American
Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls
le Carré, John. A Perfect Spy
le Carré, John. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
le Carré, John. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Mailer, Norman. Barbary Shore
Mailer, Norman. Harlot’s Ghost
McCarry, Charles. The Miernik Dossier
McEwan, Ian. Atonement
McEwan, Ian. The Innocent
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible
Orczy, Baroness Emmuska. The Scarlet Pimpernel
Orwell, George. 1984
Roth, Philip. My Life as a Man
Roth, Philip. Zuckerman Bound
Vonnegut, Kurt. Mother Night
This guide was written by Je Banach.