Sweet Tooth is, indeed, about a reader — one who happens to work for the British Security Service (MI5).
It's the early '70s, and the Cold War is in full weary swing. MI5 concocts a scheme to "sponsor" writers they think will write novels that illustrate the futility of communism — an operation codenamed Sweet Tooth. It's a tried-and-true method in the "war of ideas," as they've learned from their intelligence counterparts across the pond. Serena Frome, early 20s, gorgeous, lover of books, and new to the service, is tasked with "running" a promising writer named Tom Haley. Her mission is simply to convince him to accept money from a front literary Foundation, and then keep tabs on his progress as a short story writer, journalist, and (it's hoped) novelist.
One problem: She immediately falls in love with him. Even bigger problem: Her immediate supervisor Max at MI5 may be in love with her. So how will Serena keep the secret of who she actually works for from Tom, maintain her relationship with him (because, you know, they are genuinely in love!), and keep Max at bay?
If all that sounds very intriguing, it is! And the intrigue is heightened by the fact that McEwan writes in the first person (i.e., Serena is telling us her story) — a bold choice, to be sure. But the issue here is that it takes more than half the novel just to get to that point. Meanwhile, McEwan gives us a ton of background on Serena's childhood and time studying "maths" at Cambridge. Then, we detour into the story of a professor at Cambridge named Tony, with whom she Serena has an affair (he's married...scandalous!). And then, as she begins research to lure Tom into Sweet Tooth, we get several long summaries of Tom's short stories. And finally, British politics find their way in here and there, infusing the very slowly building story with a bit more dull. Yes, all this is relevant to what McEwan eventually has in store for us — but that doesn't mean any of it is incredibly interesting.
Contrary to what you may have heard, this is not a spy novel, nor is it a "Cold War thriller" as a blurb on the back suggests. It's much more of a slow-burn than a white-knuckler — a story about a reader's relationship with a writer she first admires, then loves...with a bunch of Cold War stuff thrown in to dress up that kernel of plot. McEwan pulls you along just fast enough that you're not willing to give up before something important happens.
Sweet Tooth ties with Solar as my least favorite McEwan novel. (I loved both Atonement and Saturday.) But McEwan diehards may enjoy Sweet Tooth much more than I did — his dry wit and sharply observed descriptions are definitely on display here. And, as always, he's got something up his sleeve. But to me, that wasn't enough to save this one.