The tale of Serena Frome, how she got along at university and afterward, the great enterprise in which she was surprised to find herself undertaking, the ending in which all that was important is validated, this is the surface of Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth.
But what the novel is also about is the love of books, of writing, of connecting. In a meta layer that honors literature lover and larger-than-life McEwan friend Christopher Hitchens, to whom the book is dedicated, Sweet Tooth is a homage to a perhaps more innocent belief that literature matters. It may not literally save a life, as it did in McEwan's Saturday, but literature sure does make life worth savoring.
Specifically, the plot concerns young Serena's coming of age. She has spent her life doing what others have expected -- majoring in maths at Cambridge when she would rather have studied literature at a less distinguished university up north, then falling under the influence of an older professor, getting a job for a government agency when she least expected it and then being assigned to take a major role in an espionage project -- when all she really wanted to do was inhale books.
My needs were simple. I didn't bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn't mind so much of they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say "Marry me" by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. ... Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between -- I gave them all the same rough treatment.Some reviewers have used this quote as an indictment of the novel, as being a comment of McEwan thinking women are stupid and silly. It didn't strike me that way and I still don't see it. Perhaps it's because I'm a book omnivore and not a genre snob. I don't insist on a happy ending, as the young Serena does, but I remember those days when I was thrilled about the way Jane Eyre ended and surprised at the turns Vanity Fair and Middlemarch took. Just because life doesn't often have a happy ending doesn't mean a reader can't want her book to end well on occasion. Sometimes, a happy ending fits.
In the same way she reads books in a breezy, suck 'em up and move on manner, and goes along with what's presented to her for an academic route and on the job, her attitude about relationships with men is to indulge herself with whoever is in front of her. In both her reading life and in her love life, however, there is the unexpected one who changes her outlook and, at length, her destiny.
Just as she seriously falls for the work of a serious writer (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and she falls after reading his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) who turns her from being a breezy columnist on books with a growing following into a harsh, tormented diarist people are not interested in reading, Serena falls for the young writer who she chooses for the espionage program she is assigned to. Sweet Tooth is the name of the operation, but it's also the way she consumes books and each new love affair. She is in love with love and, as Louisa May Alcott say, is too fond of books.
Sweet Tooth was generally not well-received by the critics. Perhaps, because Serena wrotes from the viewpoint of looking back at her early years, and because of the ending, this novel is being compared to Atonement and found wanting. I also get the sense that critics haven't approved of McEwan at least since Saturday, which I liked despite not rooting with a whole heart for the protagonist, who was more accepting of Bush's warmongering than I, and a climax that defied my ability to suspend disbelief. McEwan's heart was still in the right place.
The same can be said for Sweet Tooth. For all of Serena's apparent blase outlook and lack of thinking before she leaps, Serena's story, and her ultimate decision, show that love and literature are worthwhile choices for living a full life.
That living a full life is a wonderful celebration of the best of Christopher Hitchens. It makes sense that McEwan would dedicate this novel to his close friend. In this Guardian piece about Hitchens during his illness, there is the quintessential Hitch anecdote. McEwan gives Hitchens a book and they discuss the author, in this case, Peter Ackroyd. "We had never spoken of him before, and Christopher seemed to have read everything," McEwan wrote. "He wanted the Ackroyd, he said, because it was small and didn't hurt his wrist to hold. But soon he was making pencilled notes in its margins. By that evening he'd finished it."
All of us in the Books and Readers Community are at various stages of our lifelong journey in reading. At times we may crave certain types of books or stories or information. We may be consistent in reading attitudes or go through binges. Some of you are like me in going after each new book the same way that dog in "Up" is distracted by the word "squirrel!" But I hope we can take a step back from our own reading preferences and where we are in our own journeys to acknowledge that where ever someone else is in their reading journey, the fact they have undertaken it is a worthwhile endeavor.
The way all literature, not just literary fiction, but mysteries, romance, biographies, histories, fantasy and more, have enriched my life and given me more to think about and more grounding in what I believe, the way it has expanded my world, is something I wish more people could or would include in their lives. It's why I feel privileged to have become a teacher and a teacher-librarian, and it's something I am glad to celebrate with you in all our community's diaries.
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||11:30 AM||Political Book Club||Susan from 29|
|Mon||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||Susan from 29, michelewln|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|TUES||5:00 PM||Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left||bigjacbigjacbigjac|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||All Things Bookstore||Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||8:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||2:00 PM||e-books||Susan from 29|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|Thu (first each month)||11:00 AM||Monthly Bookpost||AdmiralNaismith|
|Thu (third each month - on hiatus)||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|Fri||6:00 PM||Books Go Boom!||Brecht|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|