Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan is one of those rare books that I think benefits from the reader knowing a “spoiler” at the end. Some people are really upset by spoilers but in general I don’t mind them. If I’m truly interested in a book or movie, I’m going to engage with that despite knowing the twist, the shocking reveal, or character death. Even if I know x is going to happen, I still probably want to know how the author will solve for x. I’m okay with that kind of algebra.
Sweet Tooth, however, thrives upon knowing the spoiler. I’m not sure if McEwan intended it that way or even if he didn’t, it works. (Besides, as we all know and can agree upon, authorial intent is a fallacy.) Anyway, here’s the general plot and if you don’t want to know the spoiler, skip down to the end after the picture of the book and read about the cool book swap that I went to yesterday.
Serena Frome (rhymes with plume), the daughter of an Church of England bishop in the 1970s is a voracious reader and wants to study literature at Cambridge. Her mother, however, tells her that it’s her duty as a woman to study math, which Serena is also good at. So Serena gets a mediocre grade in math and starts an affair with an English professor who has ties to MI-5. He begins to mold her into a perfect MI-5 candidate before he dies under mysterious circumstances.
After being recruited, Serena begins to work on a project called “Sweet Tooth” where MI-5 will finance writers who align with their ideals. Not necessarily writing anti-Communist propaganda, but funding the opinions that British Intelligence wants. Serena falls in love with one of Sweet Tooth’s writer’s Tom Haley until at the very end of the novel, you learn the very meta twist. That Tom has been “writing” Serena as his own character all throughout the book. That she is barely her own person, that the whole book we’ve been seeing Serena through Tom’s eyes.
So if you know the twist at the end before you get there, you can see how Tom manipulates Serena into being this sort of idealized woman, who is a bit silly and a bit complacent. Without this, I think Serena is a pretty unbelievable character. I learned the spoiler from an unlikely source – Katie Roiphe at Slate Magazine. (And yes, I do think Slate has gone downhill ever since Christopher Hitchens died. Instead of interesting articles about world events, literature, and culture, we get tons of “Explainer” and “You’re doing it wrong!” articles, plus endless recaps of Girls, which has totally turned me off watching the show.) I usually think that Roiphe is a crazy person and don’t agree with her at all, but for some reason I read her review. And I think for once, we may have come to an agreement. But, as LeVar always said on Reading Rainbow, “Don’t take my word for it . . . “
Ok, spoiler free zone! Yesterday my roomies and I went to a free book swap hosted by the town recycling committee, Salem Recycles. People were encouraged to bring books to donate and then take them away free. Or just take them away free. I brought a few – it’s very hard to get rid of books since there are very few that I don’t want to keep – and my roomies brought some, too. A lot of people showed up and we got a great haul.
I think I’m the most excited about a big book I got entitled, Graphic Design in America, because it seems interesting. Plus it has nice pictures I can potentially use in a collage some day. (I’m bad and don’t mind destroying some books to make collages.)
Until Thursday, dear Readers.