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Sweet Tooth and Longing

January 16, 2013

I’ve always had a terrible sweet tooth, which has lessened its hold on me only a little as I’ve gotten older. And I’ve always wanted happy endings, another childish taste that has not changed much over the years. One of the things I like best about Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is its proliferation of happy endings after the war is over.  I think readers of Ian McEwan want happy endings too, to spend an entire novel straining towards Atonement and now longing, in Sweet Tooth, for the kind of satisfaction that can only be sated with one thing, one thing that is almost certainly going to be (as a parent would say) bad for you.

The heroine of Sweet Tooth, Serena Frome, is a cleric’s daughter, a reader, a Cambridge graduate, and an aspiring spy. For her first assignment, code named Sweet Tooth, she is assigned to read the early works of an author named Tom Haley and convince him to accept money from a fictional foundation actually funded by the government in order to produce novels and articles friendly to western-style capitalism.  Serena, quite naturally, loves her job:  “All my needs beyond the sexual met and merged: I was reading, I was doing it for a higher purpose that gave me professional pride, and I was soon to meet the author.” Who among us would not love to be doing such work?

In the course of reading the novel, we read a lot of Tom Haley’s fiction and become, without really knowing it, complicit in his way of thinking about what motivates people in their relationships with each other. We see Serena reveal some of her secrets to Tom, and watch them begin to fall in love when he shares his love of poetry, urging her to “try to remember the feelings” after she’s read the poem.  Their love affair is based on shared perceptions from fiction, like that “Chablis was a joke choice because, apparently, James Bond liked it.”  (This part was absolutely irresistible to me, a person who fell in love with another reader and whose family always plans vacations that include some kind of fictional element, whether it’s getting the Universal Studios tour of Hill Valley, having a drink at The Eagle and Child and then walking through Dove Cottage, exploring the coastline where Poe’s story “The Gold Bug” was set, or–the plan for this coming summer–to tour an island where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed.)

Serena’s idyll is interrupted by reality when she goes to visit her parents at Christmas. She bursts into tears against her father’s chest when he opens the door to her and isn’t sure why, although it’s the first clue to the immensity of her longing for something that isn’t ordinary. She even thinks “it seemed exotic to have a father who dabbled routinely in the supernatural, who went out to work in a beautiful stone temple late at night, house keys in his pocket, to thank or praise or beseech a god on our behalf.”

This novel turns out, not how I expected, but to be what I was longing for–like Serena, not even fully aware of the thing for which I longed.  Because this is a recently published novel, I don’t want to tell you what I was longing for, but it’s what we all long for, all the time; it’s a profoundly conventional ending. Nevertheless, if you read Sweet Tooth as I did, you’ll be utterly blindsided by getting what you didn’t fully admit you wanted all along.

What do you long for, as an adult, that you think might be bad for you? Have you ever gotten it–and was it bad for you?


27 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2013 10:11 am

    What do I long for? Besides lovely warm but not windy days on a beach with the best books and no worries about ‘tomorrow’? Can’t think of a thing.

    I have tbr’d this; I have a thing for Ian McEwan.

    • January 17, 2013 9:19 am

      A beach and a book, yep, that’s a fine longing; I always have that one. I’ve made reservations for this summer, and that does help to get me through the cold, gray months.

  2. January 16, 2013 10:57 am

    Well, I can’t say in public what I long for. But, this book is on my “to read” list.

    • January 17, 2013 9:20 am

      I think that what you long for is not bad for you, and that reading this book will be good for you.

  3. January 16, 2013 12:39 pm

    I’ve given up longing. Perhaps I long to have longings?

    • January 17, 2013 9:21 am

      You are so practical. I’ve always thought that.

  4. January 16, 2013 1:42 pm

    I admit it — I’m not really reading this, because I’m just about to read this book.

    • January 17, 2013 9:22 am

      *Exasperated* then why did I work so hard to keep away from anything that could possibly be a spoiler?

      • January 17, 2013 1:16 pm

        I just think that I’ll know from what you’re avoiding . . . I will read it quickly, so I can come back and read this. Or, I’ll wait til I’m 15 pages in, and then I’ll come back.

        • January 17, 2013 1:45 pm

          I’m thinking more often of writing reviews full of spoilers, because it’s difficult to have very much discussion with folks who haven’t yet read something, anyway.

          • January 17, 2013 2:21 pm

            I think that’s reasonable, actually — it is hard to write about stuff without disclosing anything.

  5. January 16, 2013 3:46 pm

    I think almost everything I long for as an adult (and they tend to be centered on carbs and sweets) is bad for me.

    • January 17, 2013 9:23 am

      Yeah, me too. Warmth and sun is always my long-term longing, and the sweets get me through until that can happen again.

  6. January 16, 2013 8:51 pm

    I’m reading a book that is unexpected in that kind of way. I think you might like it, if you haven’t already read it (Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale).

    • January 17, 2013 9:29 am

      I’ve been reading about Winter’s Tale and should probably put it on my list of books to read. I do shy away from reading anything about winter at this time of year, but what I read about this one doesn’t make me believe that it would plunge me any deeper into seasonal immobility and despair.

      • January 18, 2013 12:22 pm

        It’s not despair. Winter is beautiful and full of activity in this story. And I think it’s more unexpected elements would appeal to you. I’m about halfway through and I still have no idea where it’s headed, but in a good way.

  7. January 17, 2013 2:29 am

    Purely on the subject of completely unexpected, unlooked for and destabilising endings, I recommend Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana (fantasy). It takes your expectations and twists them around in ways you could never imagine.

  8. January 17, 2013 2:03 pm

    I think we often long for things that aren’t good for us. If we actually got what we wanted all the time I doubt we’d be happy. I’m curious about this book because I’ve loved some of Mcewan and really disliked some, so we’ll see where this one falls.

    • January 17, 2013 6:07 pm

      What if you got one of the things you long for but think isn’t good for you, and then it turned out to be very good for you? That’s what this novel is about.

  9. January 18, 2013 9:20 am

    Delighted to read your review as this is one of the contemporary novels I really want to read this year. I am very fond of the proverb, be careful what you wish for because you might just get it. I longed for an academic job and got one, and trying to live up to my image of what academics were like (sooooo idealised compared to the real thing) nearly killed me. So yes, indeed, do be careful what you wish for!

    • January 18, 2013 5:51 pm

      *rueful laugh* As an adult, I always longed to be able to teach, and got that for as long as I could stand the road warrior life.
      I still have Kirsten Dunst’s character from Elizabethtown in my head tilting her head and saying conversationally “you failed, you failed, you failed” at the same time as I have J.K. Rowling, in her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, saying “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

      • January 22, 2013 8:35 am

        Oh I love that quote from J K Rawling. Very useful to me today – thank you for that.

  10. February 17, 2013 11:22 pm

    Okay, I’m back. I loved it. I loved the stories inside it — in fact, I can’t help thinking that Tom seems a bit like Ian, which makes me wonder if Serena is at all like his wife? The timing is right. But I think that’s just anther story . . .. I did love it, though.

    • February 18, 2013 8:13 am

      One of the fun things about the story is that it sweeps you into that mindset, of story-telling.


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