Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth

A Novel

Book - 2012
Average Rating:
Rate this:

In this stunning new novel, 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.nbsp;The year is 1972.nbsp;The Cold War is far from over.nbsp;England's legendary intelligence agency is determined to manipulate the cultural conversation by funding writers whose politics align with those of the government.nbsp;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.nbsp;At first, she loves his stories.nbsp;Then she begins to love the man.nbsp;How long can she conceal her undercover life?nbsp;To answer that question, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage:nbsp;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.

Publisher: New York : Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, c2012.
Edition: 1st American ed.
ISBN: 9780385536820
Characteristics: 304 p. ; 25 cm.


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment

Nov 15, 2018

Very clever and very well written in the usual McEwan manner. Not as good as Nutshell but way better than Amsterdam. The ending in Amsterdam, I found, was farcical, whereas the ending in Sweet Tooth is very clever but both books share his good writing

Apr 26, 2018

Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an American bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. The year is 1972. Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency. The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the flight goes on, especially in the cultural sphere.
Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a “secret mission” that brings her into the literary world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life, and who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage: trust no one. (Description slightly edited from the hardcover book flap, presumably a description provided by the publisher.)

I decided to read this book after Daniel Silva's House of Spies, which I had read immediately preceding this book, briefly mentioned the book.

This book is interesting and obviously well written; however, it's very “talky,” and nothing really happens.

Wait. That's really not fair. Things do happen, except they're slow to develop, which probably why Sweet Tooth is such an interesting book and why Ian McEwan is such an interesting writer. I'd like to read some more of his books.

Mar 26, 2017

One of those books where I didn’t try too hard to *get it* and simply let it wash over me – a mostly enjoyable experience with this loosely-espionage love story. But then, I like wily, craft-y writers who loop back with metafiction, even though we think we know where we’re headed with the outcome stated in the opening paragraph. Writers writing about literature and writing. And secrets, deception, betrayal, seduction, who’s who thrown in. Fun. "… the awesome power of the imagination …" (p.194)

Dec 20, 2016

A good read that can be annoying at times. Doesn't leaving you feeling much, but it's fun.

Jun 25, 2016

This English author tells a story involving a young attractive girl who becomes a spy for the secret police in England.
Following her experience in investigating a writer professor whom the government suspects is a socialist, is a very compelling read.

Jun 25, 2016

Classic McEwan, with a big twist I just didn't see coming. Left me reeling for days. Highly recommend.

Jun 09, 2015

An interesting story but ultimately disappointing. A young woman - beautiful & smart - meets a university professor through her present boyfriend, begins an affair, is groomed for her MI5 interview, affair ends, gets hired, an infatuated co-worker works against her ... I didn't really feel much character advancement, tension, or involvement with the people. Not his best.

Mar 03, 2015

A couple of other reviewers have noted that the review they were writing in their head while reading this novel was undermined by the final chapter in which all the cheesy pretensions and irritating literary devices are explained. I have to admit that as I nodded in agreement with them, I also realized how sad it is that I read novels now with some percentage of my attention given over to what I will write in my inevitable Goodreads review.

So, the "review I was writing in my head" was going to focus on themes of deception and inauthenticity. It would have explored Serena's empty, self-delusional identity as she glides about with very little intention or ambition in almost utter mediocrity through university, a trite affair with a married professor, and into the dull, bureaucratic, linoleum-clad corridors of MI5 where she remains "a clerical officer of the lowest grade." Dull, but, as she says, "I really was pretty."

Pretty Serena is then given a chance to shine: Operation Sweet Tooth, an ill-conceived and misguided propaganda project thought up by petty agents more concerned with getting a leg up on MI6 than making any real progress in the Cold War. She immediately and quite predictably falls for her "agent," Tom, a young writer who showed up on someone's radar as an anti-Communist conservative but who, in reality, is about as much an empty vessel as Serena. Serena spends a lot of time reading Tom's stories - and recapping them in irritatingly lengthy passages - before deciding that she's probably going to fall in love with him. After they meet and, predictably, fall in love, the two drink a lot of Chablis and have a lot of sex throughout the duller middle parts of the book until events transpire that cause Serena to reflect on the nature of deception. "I knew that before this love began to take its course, I would have to tell him about myself. And then the love would end. So I couldn’t tell him. But I had to."

And there we would have had the central theme - Tom is in love with Serena, but Serena is not who he thinks she is. And without Tom, Serena is an anonymous government clerk with no personality. They need each other. If that had been it, this would have been a heartbreaking love story with the trappings of a spy novel and some weird, overly long, summaries of Tom's short stories.

When the other shoe drops, it is not as expected and everything that was irritating and puzzling and ... just weird about the first 90% of the book suddenly makes sense.

Feb 22, 2015

Good read.

Aug 09, 2014

Somewhat interesting in terms of the actions of MI5 against the left, although the novel did not particularly evoke the period of the early 70s. I did not like McEwan's "clever" presentation of a partial self-portrait. Although readable, in the end, the novel is disappointing.

View All Comments


Add a Quote

Dec 02, 2013

...was deliberately and systematically boring me to drive me away. It was insensitive of me not to notice, poor fellow, he was having to overreach himself and it was not a good performance, hopelessly overdone.


Add Age Suitability

There are no ages for this title yet.


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number

Subject Headings


Find it at PDL

To Top