A while ago we “reviewed” a new Jonathan Lethem novel before it even came out. How? By reading an excerpt and comparing it to everything Lethem had previously written. Mostly, our review was right. Chronic City stumbled in many of the ways we predicted.
In November there will be a new novel from Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth. The first chapter recently appeared in The New Yorker. So let’s take everything we have—the excerpt, the book’s Amazon page, and our knowledge of all things McEwan—and review it now, shall we?
The first chapter begins like this.
My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume”), and forty years ago, in my final year at Cambridge, I was recruited by the British security service.
Here is the full description from Amazon.
The year is 1972. The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight against Communism goes on, especially in England’s cultural circles. Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has just completed her maths degree at Cambridge. Her brief affair with one of her professors leads to an interview with MI5. Serena lands an assignment in Operation Sweet Tooth: the funding of artists and writers with whom MI5’s political views align. Her “target” is Tom Healey, a promising young writer. First she falls in love with his stories, then she begins to fall in love with the man. When his novella wins a prestigious prize, the deceit becomes too much for Serena to bear. But before she can confess, her cover is blown, scandalizing the literary world and crippling MI5’s efforts. Who blew the whistle and why? Ian McEwan will keep you guessing in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal, intrigue, and love.
As a narrator Serena Frome is cool and commanding. She shares McEwan’s almost ridiculous accuracy with period details, which makes sense for a character who’s been trained to be observant as a spy. The story is told in the present day, but it looks back wistfully on a bygone era in British history, which is one of McEwan’s strengths. (Solar, his recent novel set in the present day, is regarded as a disappointment.) No one in Sweet Tooth appears to suffer from a dubious and artistically convenient brain disease, as in Enduring Love and Saturday. One of the main characters is a writer, which worked well for McEwan in Atonement and Enduring Love. And like some of McEwan’s best books—The Innocent and Atonement—this one deals with a doomed love affair and a particular slice of British society during wartime. In fact the climax of the New Yorker excerpt, with all its inner strife and stiff upper lips, is pretty emotional and affecting. Plus, come on: spies.
Sweet Tooth will be part Alan Furst, part P.G. Wodehouse, and part Nicholas Sparks. There’s every reason to suspect it will join the list of McEwan’s essential works.
– Brian Hurley