Ian McEwan’s most acclaimed novel, Atonement, has a mundane premise on the surface, following repressed Britons on the eve of war. But unlike other carefully observed pre-World War II novels, Atonement wrung gripping romance and drama from the scenario. The expert use of unreliable narrators and the gut-wrenching final twist made Atonement ripe for lasting appeal. In McEwan’s 12th novel, Sweet Tooth, he tries his hand at the same structure.
Over the course of the last decade, McEwan has alternated between setting novels in the past and present day. 2010’s Solar took place over the past decade, and following the pattern, Sweet Tooth is set in early-1970s England. Serena Frome narrates the novel from the future, quickly detailing her childhood, mathematics degree from Cambridge, and an affair with an older professor who helps her obtain a desk job at MI5.
Though it’s a boring, low-level position, Serena is offered a chance to combine her extracurricular love of reading with MI5’s campaign against Communist propaganda. The British government plans to sponsor writers, and Serena interacts with Thomas Haley, an up-and-coming fiction writer in Brighton. Under the guise of an arts fellowship, she watches over the beginnings of Haley’s literary career, falls in love with his stories, and shortly thereafter, with the author himself. Haley’s progress bears a striking resemblance to McEwan’s own literary beginnings—albeit without the entirely fictional MI5 plot—and as Serena grows closer to Thomas, it becomes more difficult for her to hide her identity while he garners praise for his writing.
The final chapter, and the big twist, colors the preceding banalities and self-indulgences in a far more compelling light—but that still doesn’t change the fact that most of the novel is banal and self-indulgent. The best sequences are summaries of Haley’s initial short stories, several of which resemble McEwan’s early work, and Haley’s first highly acclaimed, award-winning novel mirrors McEwan’s initial prize-winning works. In light of the final revelation, the emphasis on specific authorial quirks in Haley’s writing can be Serena’s growing appreciation for his work, nostalgia for a past love, or a more selfish impulse, depending on who holds authority of the story.
Sweet Tooth attempts to undercut McEwan’s own romanticized past with the same world-shattering denouement as Atonement, but there are several problems with that approach. First, there’s comparatively little at stake between Serena and Haley. There’s no international espionage or political intrigue; it’s simply a blossoming romance within a bumbling bureaucracy. While the elevation from a more genre-influenced plot to a literary romance with hidden nooks is precisely what McEwan has led readers to expect in this situation, Sweet Tooth plays a little too close to the vest when a few more thrills would be welcome.
The novel doesn’t have many layers; it has two—and the second wrinkle only comes after the final chapter, which shows off McEwan’s skill with unreliable narrators again. The last pages are just as devastating as McEwan’s best work. But the whirlwind ending can only retroactively reframe the rest of the novel, not rewrite it in order to make it more compelling. McEwan hasn’t lost his gift for ending on a high note, but unlike in Atonement, the ordinary details aren’t imbued with enough convincing drama to earn such a breathtaking finish.