Considering Skyfall and the recent MoMA retrospective 50 Years of James Bond, I was pretty stoked to pick up Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth. It's ostensibly a spy novel, but the book's layered betrayal and intrigue originate less from espionage than the sticky reality of love.
Yet halfway through, with gunplay (spoiler!) at a solid zero and awkward sex in abundance, I was hooked on Serena Frome, the Cambridge graduate and unlikely MI5 employee, and her burgeoning love for writer and “assignment” Tom Haley. This is raw romance, not that flowery Fabio stuff (not that I'd know). Consider the following relationship advice, with scenarios culled directly from McEwan's text, and Sweet Tooth might not sound so alien after all.
I want to shag her/him, but I've got roommates...
“So here we were, indoors at last, in my twelve feet by twelve bedsit, Tom in my junk-shop chair, and I perched on the edge of the bed. It was better to go on talking for a while. My housemates would hear the drone of our voices and soon lose interest.” If you haven't experienced New York's paper-thin walls or had a roommate whose space and opinion you respect, I envy you. With Serena's approach, a sort of sexual filibuster, roommates are slowly numbed to your muffled moans and bedspring squeaks. Or you get so used to each other it's like fuck it.
Is it wrong to flaunt our wealth — actual and romantic?
“Within a minute, while others who were there before us had nothing, we had our champagne, and soon after that the silver dish and its cargo of ice, and shells containing the glistening cowpats of briny viscera that we dared not cease pretending to like.” To see and be seen, a pair of “regulars” there for the looks and cozy treatment — who can resist it? I have a shortlist of New York spots I frequented with ex-girlfriends, hemorrhaging cash and projecting wildly: They are leading the good life, thought the other guests. They are so in love. Sometimes it was true, too.
We are constantly one-upping each other. Annoying or hot?
“I was beginning to feel a distinctive and unusual kind of pleasure, a sense of being set free ... What was so very simple for me, for him was apparently beyond comprehension.” The battle of wits, that chemical reaction of your areas of expertise colliding. No matter how current, cultured, and savvy you are, she/he is all that times three. That's rarely a negative thing.
The secrets are tearing us apart...
“This particular feeling, that he was now entirely mine and always would
be, whether he wanted it or not, was weightless, empty, I could disown
it at any point ... Perhaps this was the time to tell him, when he
couldn't get away. Tell him now, I kept thinking. Tell him what you do.” Like Mickey & Sylvia
said, love is strange. Here's the evidence: Tom Haley and the spy who shagged him become totally invested in each other. We know from Serena's opening lines — “I
was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn't
return safely.” — that this won't end well. And soon enough we care, wondering how is he going to find out? Without revealing unnecessary spoilers, just remember that secrets cut both ways.
Early in Sweet Tooth, Serena describes her unsnobbish, even idyllic reading habits: “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.”
I surprised myself: by the end of Sweet Tooth, I wanted the same thing.