A Review of Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan started off a little slowly for my tastes.  I also had to adjust to the writing style, as it had been very different from the book I had previously been reading.  This adjustment didn’t take long.  The style is easy to get used to; McEwan is a great storyteller.

The Good:  The last chapter is well worth the wait.  It takes some time to get there, but by the end of the novel, I was left feeling satisfied.  Some of the questions I had throughout the novel, ones that I never really expected to be answered, were in fact answered; that was all I could really ask for.  I won’t give any more away.

The character Tom Haley saved the book.  His introduction actually breathed life in to an otherwise dull novel that was going nowhere, while rehashing particulars of the Cold War that I rendered useless.  With Haley came a purpose.  I think he is introduced too late, but better late than never.

The short stories by Haley that are summarized for us in the novel are amazing.  I feel that one could easily argue that the short stories contained in the novel are even better than the actual novel.  Each one left an impression, and I was left wondering why McEwan hadn’t written them, but instead choose to include them in this larger work.  They do lend themselves to themes that run throughout the novel; silence, love, and betrayal.  One of the stories in particular suggests a strong allusion to one of Shakespeare’s plays, A Winter’s Tale, in which a character named Hermione is turned into a stone statue.  In the short story, a lonely and slightly deranged man falls in love with a mannequin he names Hermione – yes, it is just as creepy as it sounds, but it is also poignant in a way that only truly creepy, well-written stories can be.  Again, the themes of love, betrayal, and silence are clearly represented and offer a truly deeper meaning to the novel.

The Bad:

The novel takes place during the Cold War.  The main character finds herself in a career she did not entirely choose for herself, working for M15.  There is a lot of political talk that bogs down the beginning chapters which I found to be entirely dull.  Her involvement was often confusing, as was her mission in regards to the operation nicknamed Sweet Tooth, hence giving the book its title.  The affair she also has with an older married professor is so dull I almost stopped reading, but was reassured that it got better by the friend who originally had suggested it to me.  It does, but the beginning is dreadfully slow and at times terribly confusing given the political climate of the period.

McEwan also makes many allusions to both great literary works and great authors.  Some of these allusions are more subtle, as the one mentioned above in regards to A Winter’s Tale, while others are incredibly blatant.  At first, I really enjoyed these allusions and tried to gather information from them as to what McEwan’s purpose was for including them.  What was he saying about his characters by including this allusion?  As I got deeper into the novel, the allusions began to run rampant, and by doing so, they entirely lost their effect and their purpose, if any was intended.  They were suddenly everywhere, and I lost track of what McEwan was trying to say by inserting them in to his narrative.  Fewer would have been more powerful.  As the novel is saturated by literary references, they strike the reader as complete overkill.

The Verdict:

DO NOT READ:  if you have no patience, this novel may be difficult to get through, at least inititally.  Likewise, if you are not a book lover and do not like certain twists at the end that I have now come to expect from McEwan, it is probably best that you avoid this novel and move on to something else.

READ: If you truly love books, you will enjoy most of the literary references if you take them only at face value – something I find very difficult to do after years of analyzing novels to get my English degree.  The book is ultimately worth the read if you have any semblance of patience for Tom Haley to appear, as the last chapter truly does complete the novel.

Written by Rachel B.

Rachel is a co-creator and writer at Definitely Not for the Birds (DNFB). She recently graduated with a degree in English. Presently, she writes, reads, and then reads and writes some more, with a giant and ever-present mug of green tea in her hand. Follow Rachel @rrbindl and DNFB @not4birds