Sweet Tooth and Longing
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?