“I turned the pages so fast. And I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for a something, version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite shoes.”
I feel like I need to start by saying I love Ian McEwan. I love him in a way that is difficult to express without turning into a puddle of giggly thoughts. Atonement is one of my favorite novels of all time. Whenever I read one of his books I feel like this is a man who understands human nature. That is why when I read that Sweet Tooth was coming out I was over the moon with glee. But not only were we getting a new book, it was also the first one since Atonement with a female heroine at its center. I was sold.
The basic premise for the book is simple yet deceiving. At a rather young age Serena Frome becomes a low-level recruit for England’s intelligence agency, MI5. She is supposedly hired because she is a compulsive reader (also, because she sleeps with some man?) and thus the perfect under-cover agent to infiltrate the life of writer Tom Haley in whom the agency has invested interests. Once she gets to know him it becomes impossible for her to differentiate her mission from her real feelings as she falls in love with him.
So this is a spy novel with a bit of sexy romance in it, right? Somewhere in the blurb you can even find something along the lines of “espionage is the ultimate seduction”. But is it really? Obviously it is not. What the novel turns out to be is something completely different and so much more complex and important than that. It is about women. It’s about men. It’s about male writers and a woman’s consciousness. It’s about male writers inhabiting a woman’s consciousness and making it their own playground.
From the start something in the novel feels strange. If you are a usual reader of McEwan you can sense it right from the first lines. Serena is intelligent but lacks depth. She is one-dimensional and very simple at times. She likes to read novels. She has a family. Not much of her is known prior to the moment when the book starts. She likes men. Mostly she likes to discuss the men in her life. There are facts and there are actions but there is no true self. She does not seem to grow or change. The façade of the woman is there but nothing true or interesting comes out of her. Which would be just fine in any other novel but this is in no way a character Ian McEwan would create or feel any interest in writing about.
But of course as the book comes to a close (and much before that if you, like me, know the author) you realize that this has never been Serena’s book. It’s been Tom Haley’s all along. The fact of the matter is that towards the end of the novel Haley discovers that Serena has been lying to him and leading a double life. In order to understand her decisions he has to get inside her head and the only way he knows how to do that is by writing her. So while all along we thought Serena was the one speaking to us it turns out that it was Haley from the start. The real woman exists, but is she at all like Haley invents? Why is this important? I have read reviews suggesting that the “final twist” doesn’t work, that it lacks emotion. But this is not a book about twists. This is not a book about spies. This is a novel about writing and about the male gaze and how male writers write about women, how they try to inhabit and understand them. If Serena seems to be bland and a bit one-dimensional at times it’s because we are just scratching at the base of her true being. And if we always feel like we don’t really know her it’s because we don’t. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. Serena is just an ideal; she is not the real woman. We are supposed to be disconnected from her. Once the revelation occurs everything falls into place and most of Serena’s actions start making sense. The adoration she feels for Haley, her pliability, her intellectual inferiority, and the way she seems to enjoy his sexual domination. Once it becomes clear that Serena’s inner consciousness has been rewritten and that it was never her own but Haley’s idealized version of her it all makes sense.
“I was the basest of readers. All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form.”
I have no problem with men writing women. Men have written some of the greatest works of literature about women. I also don’t think Sweet Tooth is a critique of that. But McEwan is indeed writing about men and about this idea of what a perfect woman should be like. He is writing about how Serena is just a vessel for a man to channel his own demons. Serena is just another of the author’s creations, a vacant and compliant woman, a doll if you may. Incidentally this is a recurring theme in the book as throughout the novel we can read some of Haley’s stories, one of which is about a man who falls in love with a store mannequin. It is also in these stories that the reader can glimpse the true meaning of what is going on. The stories are powerful, have depth and are hauntingly beautiful and sad in equal parts. These stories show that the writer is not unable to transmit real feelings with his words, he has beauty in him, but in trying to imagine Serena he falls short. He doesn’t understand the woman behind the face. He over-simplifies her interests and misunderstands her actions. He makes her uninteresting and boring. He writes her as he’d wish her to be instead of how she really is; complex and flawed, a real living woman. But he does so because Serena was never the focus of the story, she was only an excuse to write about himself.
While Sweet Tooth does not have the epic scope that Atonement did and it lacks its lyricism and beauty of words (for a reason) I feel like this is a much more important book. It teaches us about the politics of gender. It shows us how deeply men can misunderstand women and how fraught with deceit and wish fulfillment relationships can be. This is a book that demands to be reread and understood.