11/19/2012 01:25 pm ET

The Book We're Talking About: 'Sweet Tooth' By Ian McEwan

"Sweet Tooth" by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese, $26.95
November 13, 2012

What is it about?
McEwan's most autobiographical novel to date tells the story of Serena, a young book lover and math scholar who is assigned to an exciting mission by the British security service during the early 70s. She is asked to coerce a modernist writer into penning anti-Marxist articles, but, predictably, falls in love with him instead. As the story unfolds, the reader becomes aware that Serena, clearly capricious enough to dismiss her duties as an agent, may not be a very reliable narrator.

Why are we talking about it?
We're big fans of McEwan, from his gothic short stories to his blockbuster hit, Atonement, so anything by him is worth a look in our opinion.

Who wrote it?
Ian McEwan is an English writer who gained notoriety for his supposedly obscene novel, Solid Geometry. He has written three short story collections and 12 novels, including Atonement, which was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film, and Amsterdam which won the Man Booker Prize.

Who will read it?
Those interested in spy stories, love stories, the 1970s and literary criticism (as many of the plot events are metaphors for movements such as realism and modernism).

What do the reviewers say?
The Guardian: McEwan [has] fun, and, as long as you can see through the somewhat dreary, understated, Tinker Tailor-ishness of the spying game, so do you... This is a great big beautiful Russian doll of a novel, and its construction – deft, tight, exhilaratingly immaculate – is a huge part of its pleasure. There are stories within stories, ideas within ideas, even images within images.

The New York Times: What begins as a sort of cold war le Carré tale about a spy (and the psychology of spying) soon mutates into something else: a tricky postmodern entertainment that features, in the role of Serena’s lover, a writer who bears more than passing resemblance to the younger Mr. McEwan himself. The result is a clever but annoying novel that lacks both the deeply felt emotion of this author’s dazzling 2001 masterpiece, “Atonement,” and the chilling exactitude of his 1998 Booker Prize-winning thriller, “Amsterdam.”

Impress your friends:
There are a slew of parallels between McEwan and Thomas Haley, the object of Serena's mission. Both writers' debut novels were dystopian, and both attended the University of Sussex. Although McEwan admits to the autobiographical elements, he laments, "unfortunately a beautiful woman never came into my room and offered me a stipend," as Selena does to Haley.

Opening lines:
"My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn't return safely."

Notable passage:
"Here, on the eighteenth of thirty-nine pages, was a space between the paragraphs adorned with a single asterisk. I stared into it to prevent my gaze slipping down the page and revealing the writer's next move. Sentimentally, I hoped that Edmund's high-flown talk of love would deliver him back to his wife and children. Not much chance of that in a modernist story."



Editors Picks: Best Books 2012