It’s Britain, 1972. Life for beautiful blonde Cambridge graduate Serena Frome (rhymes with Plume) is about to take an unexpected turn. She’s puddled along getting an average degree in Mathematics to please her mother’s ‘feminist’ ideals. When she begins a brief but passionate affair with her middle-aged college professor, little does she know she is being groomed for a place in MI5.
The relationship ends suddenly but a devastated Serena starts working for the intelligence services anyway, disappointed to find herself doing lowly paid grunt work in a back office of a grimy London street.
However she soon catches the eye of a more senior employee who fancies her and finds herself recommended for the exciting assignment she has hankered for. Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a secret mission codenamed Sweet Tooth, which brings her into the literary world of T.H (Tom) Haley, a promising young writer.
Her task is to covertly ensure his writing is in line with the agency’s own anti-Soviet causes. Believing a (bogus) foundation for the arts is funding him, he must never learn where his monthly retainer is coming from.
So begins phase two of Serena’s double life. (Her family is ignorant of her role as low-level spy.) First she loves Tom’s stories and then inevitably, romance blossoms and she begins to love the man.
This is where the story picks up and the pages started to turn more quickly for me. The relationship with Tom is sweet and genuine but Serena struggles to maintain the fiction of her undercover life. Then she learns what happened to her former lover Tony Canning. Amidst the betrayals, the intrigue and the love is the big question; Who can she really trust?
Although the novel challenged my interest in a few small sections, there’s an unexpected twist in the tail that is well worth reaching. All in all a highly recommended read; my copy’s going straight to book club.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Publisher: Random House