In Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, the byline is better than the book

What happens when an accomplished, award-winning author writes a mediocre novel? That’s the conundrum at the center of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (Nan A. Talese, $27). On the surface, it’s a novel about espionage, storytelling, and affaires de coeur set in England during the early 1970s, featuring an attractive spy named Serena Frome. In the opening sentence, McEwan tells readers that “Frome” rhymes with “plum” and adds that Sweet Tooth is told from a distance of nearly 40 years. The novel presents itself as Serena’s memoir, but it actually contains semi-autobiographical references to McEwan himself.

McEwan’s debut, First Love, Last Rites (1975), won the Somerset Maugham award, and Amsterdam (1998) nabbed the Man Booker Prize—an honor he’s been nominated for six times. Atonement (2001), McEwan’s biggest success, was turned into a popular film. Clearly, the man knows how to tell a story. So why isn’t this book better?

Perhaps Sweet Tooth suffers from a heroine problem. Serena is beautiful, but not brilliant. McEwan gives her a math degree, but her true passion is reading, despite her questionable taste. (She declares Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls “was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote.”) Serena’s affair with Tony Canning—a married man—leads to a job with MI5, where she’s assigned meaningless tasks. Eventually, she’s handed a project called Sweet Tooth, a plan to financially support writers critical of the Soviet Union. Remember, this is the early 1970s and the Cold War is still hotly contested. Serena is encouraged to recruit a promising writer named Tom Haley, and their relationship consumes the bulk of the story.

Sweet Tooth is more about reading and writing than spying, and the character of Tom is interesting because of his similarities to a young McEwan. McEwan’s mentor, Ian Hamilton, is here, as is his first publisher, and Martin Amis, his literary contemporary.

I found Serena’s vivid descriptions of Tom’s work equally interesting. Several stories are told in detail, and it’s no surprise they resemble the grim tales that made McEwan famous. In one, a wealthy eccentric falls in love with a store mannequin; in another, a family must navigate a post-apocalyptic world. Most of Tom’s stories deal with betrayal, deception and failed relationships. None of them would be out of place in McEwan’s own story collection, In Between the Sheets (1978).

Despite McEwan’s considerable ability, Sweet Tooth feels routine and pedestrian. At one point, Tom tells Serena, “The end is already there in the beginning. Serena, there is no plot. It’s a meditation.” McEwan has given Sweet Tooth a plot, but I’m afraid it will strike readers as so slight, so lightweight, it may not inspire meditation. ★★☆☆☆