Book: Sweet Tooth
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Spy Thriller/Fiction/Romance
Summary: 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 his 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. - Anchor Books Random House, 2012.
Every time I approach an Ian McEwan review—all but the first time, I guess—I feel some dread. McEwan is an author who garners such strong opinions, good and bad. Some think he is a hack writer, overly elaborate with his prose and plots, offensive to say the least. Others think he has incredible talent, that his stories brim with the kind of details that bring them to life. There's probably truth in both arguments, though in the end they're just opinions. Whatever the general views of McEwan and his stories, reviews of McEwan's work can lead to excessive raising of the eyebrows, eye rolling, and unfriending (though I could be exaggerating).
I throw myself in with those enamored with McEwan. That's not to say I love everything he's written, but I do find myself always thoroughly entertained. Having read some of McEwan's most popular and highly acclaimed works, I've made it a point to read the author's earliest books and work my way through his career. If you've read my reviews of McEwan's first two books, First Love, Last Rites or The Cement Garden, you probably know that old McEwan had a distinctly macabre style once upon a time. In fact, his earliest works remind me considerably of the kinds of stories Stephen King might have written.
The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan's second novel, continues this King comparison, but also shows a break from it. It's not as dark as his earlier efforts, but depravity is still present. The primary difference is that The Comfort of Strangers shows more of McEwan's elaborate style. There was a hint of the literary in McEwan's first books, but here it's strong. The descriptions in The Comfort of Strangers really evoke the setting, pulling the reader in. Even when the story began to disappoint, which it did for me, I wanted to keep reading. Even when I myself began to roll my eyes and recognize the signature overwrought plot, I was so engaged that I couldn't pull away. McEwan is guilty in this one of forcing the characters into the story. It is evident that they have no other path than the one the author makes for them. There's not even an illusion that they have free will. So, in the end, I was disappointed with this story, but there was never a moment I wasn't entertained. And that's something.
I have been an admirer of Ian McEwan's writing style since my introduction to 'Atonement' (see earlier review) and when The Times listed him among "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945", I can plainly see why. By comparison, I was less enamoured by 'Solar' (also previously reviewed), but my latest dip into the McEwan listings, the novella, 'On Chesil Beach', is in many ways a quite remarkable piece of writing.
Firstly, the book, comprising just 166 pages, split into five parts, is exquisitely crafted. The author's use of language is concise, but sumptuous and though short, the book packs a complex emotional punch, which the reader shares with newly weds Edward and Florence. From undiluted joy to excruciating despair, the couple's developing insights are naive and poignant in equal measure and McEwan tackles head-on the nature of intimacy and passion as they nudge towards the consummation of their marriage.
For the bulk of the book, the author succeeds in slowing time, launching back from the wedding day in successive reflections that map the couple's respective journeys. Each from very different backgrounds, Edward and Florence have managed to rise above the shortcomings of their parentage and by some quirk of serendipity, to find each other, which is of itself heart-warming. Yet, the book exposes potential flaws in the superficial 1960's courtship ritual and the brittle, untested facade, which they have contrived to create. There is little doubt that they love one another, but is it enough and can they fashion a workable compromise, on which to build a life together?
Perhaps some matches are made in heaven, but to succeed they have to be made to work at the human level. In this frank and at times crude exploration of 'need', it seems clear that we can be a fickle bunch, and even among the well-educated, sometimes held hostage to irrational base instincts.