Recommendation: Buy it only if you are determined to own every Ian McEwan novel. Borrow it only if you can’t find a free copy of Atonement, Saturday, or Amsterdam—which are without doubt his better works. For the rest of you, let it pass you by.
As you might have guessed from my recommendation, I was a little disappointed with Ian McEwan’s most recent novel. After reading Atonement and Saturday, I had McEwan ranked right up there with Jonathan Evison as my favorite living authors. Unfortunately for McEwan, this installment has knocked him down a notch on my list and, for the time being, he’ll have to duke it out with Susan Steinberg, Alex Shakar, and David Mitchell on the second tier.
So what bothered me about this book? Well, for starters, it uses an ending that almost exactly mirrors another one of his novels. I mean, it is extremely similar. Like, to the point that you wonder why nobody pointed it out to him and told him to do something different. Since my favorite quality in any author is the ability to write different styles/subjects/characters/stories, this was more than a little grating to me. But, you understand, don’t you? It’s a different book. If I wanted the same ending (or anything close to the same ending) I would have just reread the old book. And people often criticize books with common endings regardless of whether the author has used the ending before or not, but to steal an ending that YOU ALREADY USED??? Maybe it’s just me, but it felt like McEwan got lazy on us here.
Side Note: Any time someone reuses an ending can we start calling it the Shyamalan syndrome?
Side Note to the Side Note: Is he still making movies or did he give up after casting “the trees” as a villain?
O.K. Back on track. The characters are good enough and we get a little James Bond feel to it, since our protagonist, Serena Frome, gets involved with MI5 (which, from my understanding, handles the paperwork while MI6 does all the cool spy stuff). But, this time MI5 is getting in on the action. It’s the middle of the Cold War and the Brits are hoping to cultivate and publicize a group of up-and-coming anti-communist writers. Serena is an intense reader and, therefore, the perfect candidate to find, meet, and fund one of these writers. All goes according to plan until Serena falls in love with her target and then must decide whom, if anyone, she can trust.
That brings me to another aspect that ruffled my feathers. How many times do we have to hear the story about the woman who can’t be trusted to do her job because she falls in love? I mean, really? And you can always say that it’s a period piece or that I shouldn’t judge this singular book harshly just because I’ve encountered this story line a lot or that, even though the quantity of these tales shows an inherent sexist bias, we can’t put all the blame on Sweet Tooth, but I’m sick of it. Yes, women fall in love and, yes, sometimes women fall in love at the cost of their careers. But, it isn’t an everyday occurrence and it doesn’t need to be written about anymore. Until I start seeing thousands of books about male protagonists who soak themselves in Chanel, screw everything up at work, and can’t be trusted because of their love for a woman, I don’t want to read this story anymore.
So, this has been equal parts rant and review but that’s just life. I will say, the writing is fine. It wasn’t extraordinary, but it was still a hell of a lot better than I can do. The characters are acceptably complex (though I will mention that I found Serena a little disjointed) and there are some parts where McEwan ratchets up the tension. Overall, I don’t think this book will turn you into a giant rage monster hell-bent on roasting all copies of Sweet Tooth in a bonfire, but you won’t be missing anything if you skip this one.