Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan is set in England in 1972, with the Cold War still in full bloom, we meet Serena Frome (rhymes with Plume), an avid and omnivorous reader (she thinks Jacqueline Susann’s work is as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote). Serena would have preferred to go to a less prestigious school and study literature, but her mother insists that with her brains and beauty she could go far, (or at least not end up being like her , a well-read housewife) and Serena winds up graduating from Cambridge with a level 3 in Maths, which is apparently some kind of disgrace in the world of academic snobbery. While at Cambridge, Serena has an affair with an older man, a former intelligence operative who grooms her for a career in the government intelligence agency MI5.
After landing a job with MI5, Serena works with a group whose mission is to finance writers and artists to produce works that discredit Communism, with funds that have been triple-washed and doled out through a phony arts foundation so the artist won’t know that they’re producing government propaganda. Serena’s assignment is to sign-on a struggling up-and-coming writer, Tom Haley, who has published a couple of articles that has convinced M15 that he sees things from their point of view regarding the Soviet Union. Serena loves Haley’s short stories, but being a romantic, somewhat naïve, and liable to fall in love at the drop of a hat, it’s not long before she falls in love with the man, too.
This is a story of deception, betrayal, love, hope, and it kind of ridicules the way that Cold War propaganda tactics clung absurdly to secrecy. It’s a spy story, but not in the John Le Carre sense. Surprisingly, it’s more of a story about writing and about reading. The story is chock full of references to writers, including many of McEwan’s friends. McEwan even inserts himself neatly into this well crafted tale by including versions of some of his own short stories into the book, disguised as the writings of Tom Haley. The ending is given away in the first paragraph of the book, so some of the details of it still come as a complete surprise at the end of the book, and sent me right back to the first few chapters to see how even I , as a reader, had been the victim of authorial trickery.