This is how Ian McEwan opens his latest novel, Sweet Tooth:
My name is Serene Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. … Within eighteen months … I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover …
No author gets into his/her characters’ minds more deeply and thoroughly than McEwan, and so deeply and thoroughly does he accomplish that feat here that it’s almost as if he decided as a writing challenge to outdo even himself. And you won’t know the significance of that last comment till the very end, which I will not reveal here in the interests of protecting your enjoyment.
Serena begins her story in her adolescence, when her mother pushes her to apply to Cambridge in Math because English students (her first love) are a dime a dozen and female mathers rare, thus enhancing chances of her acceptance since her academic record is not stellar. It works, except what passed for math prowess in secondary school turns out to be a mediocre talent at University, and she just manages to scrape by.
Along the way, she keeps reading in a scattered and undisciplined manner (Jacqueline Susanne is a favorite.) and develops a taste for the occasional affair. One such is with an older man, who mentors her toward the Security (i.e., secret) Service (MI5) and pulls some strings to get her a job there upon graduation.
The job is a disappointment, basically file-clerking. After a time, though, someone in the organization comes up with the notion of providing grants (pretty much like the MacArthur Genius grants) to promising writers, hoping they’ll develop into prominent voices of anti-communism. Because of her reputation for voracious reading, Serena is assigned one such writer to “handle.” Unprofessional though it is, she ends up falling in love and into bed with him. Thus does Serena enjoy the fruits of her literary and governmental labors. She and Tom Haley spend numerous nights on the town at taxpayer expense. He does produce good works, actually winning a prestigious literary award. However, the secret shadows Serena continuously. Where, when, how, if to tell Tom the truth? Then a jealous almost-lover from the agency gets into the act. Complications ensue, and we’re back to that opening paragraph.
I’m seldom caught completely unaware by an ending, but McEwan did it to me this time. For most writers, the twist he throws in would have left me feeling manipulated, tricked, and angry. But Ian is not most writers. I’d love to go into the levels and nuances of it all because I have many thoughts and trenchant insights, but that discussion would spoil things for those who haven’t read Sweet Tooth, So I’ll leave it to later. For now, I’ll just recommend that reading this novel will be a worthy indulgence of your literary sweet tooth.