Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan Introduction
In this stunning novel, published in 2012, Ian McEwan’s first female protagonist since Atonement is about to learn that espionage is the ultimate seduction.
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.
Once again, Ian McEwan’s mastery dazzles us in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal and intrigue, love and the invented self.
- 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 Ian’s method of characterization?
- 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? How does the novel treat the subject of a “war of ideas”?
- McEwan chooses to employ a female protagonist. Is she convincing? What surprises you about her character? Is she likeable? How is she viewed by the other characters in the novel and how does this affect your own interpretation of her character?
- Is Sweet Tooth truly a spy novel? How does it fulfill or defy your expectations of this genre?
- 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 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”?
- 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?
- Serena accuses Haley of “easy nihilism” (196). What does she mean by this? Do Serena’s observations about “easy nihilism” affect your reaction of her actions throughout the novel?
- 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?
- Why doesn’t Serena tell Tom about her work? Could she have told him? Should she have?
- What view of religion and faith is presented in the novel? Evaluate Serena’s relationships with her father The Bishop. How does his character seem to shape her character and affect her relationship with men henceforth?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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? How do Serena’s literary tastes change throughout the novel?
- Subversion plays a major role in Sweet Tooth. Consider not only how readers’ expectations are topped, but how the characters’ expectations are consistently defied. What, then, does the novel suggest about what we can know—or what we cannot know—about others? About our own identity?
- What does Sweet Tooth reveal about the process of writing itself and the genesis of a work of literature?
(adapted from publisher’s questions)