WARNING: This essay reveals a major twist in Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth. You’ll get another warning right before the spoiler.
There is no shortage of excellent, richly imagined books about female protagonists written by male novelists (think of Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, or Norman Rush’s Mating, or Ian McEwan’s Atonement), but there are very few instances of male novelists writing about writing about female protagonists.
In Ian McEwan’s tricky and captivating new novel Sweet Tooth, he takes as his complex subject the male writer entering a woman’s consciousness (or it might be more accurate in this case to say breaking and entering a woman’s consciousness).
From the start, one feels a certain uneasiness about his central character. Serena Frome, a low-level spy for MI5, is a little pliant, a little silly, a little bland, a little light on actual interest in her work, which she accidentally falls into because of a man, and remains engaged in because of other men; with her “summer blue eyes” and “old fashioned peaches and cream look” she is a creature of romantic attachment and nice hair. She is not exciting or daring or complicated in the way that we are accustomed to our female heroines being exciting or daring or complicated. And even with her unusual career, there is some element of independence or defiance or spark that is missing. So who is Serena Frome, the reader can’t help but feel, and why are we reading about her?
Serena deceives her central romantic interest, the rising young novelist Tom Haley, by not revealing that she is a spy and that she has recruited him for a foundation funded by her agency, but her great deception is less a deception than a sort of girlish mistake, a fear of losing him, a missing of the moment. As she says of herself when she was young, “I was a girl with untutored tastes, I was an empty mind, ripe for a takeover,” and she doesn’t noticeably appear to grow out of those qualities. In short, one feels the character is a little thin to sustain a book-length inquiry into her life and times. And yet, it turns out McEwan is skewering, relentlessly examining and exposing this thinness, this fantasy of female consciousness for what it is—a man’s.
Tom Haley’s subterranean feelings or ideas about women are illuminated in the intriguing glimpses we get of the stories he writes, short stories which in their jewel-like darkness and thematic precision bear a striking resemblance to early McEwan (See his 1978 collection, In Between the Sheets.) They are all unsettling commentaries on the perversion of fantasy, the frightening dominion of a man’s idea of a woman over anything resembling her self, the alarming deceptions and self-deceptions of love.
Haley writes, for instance, about a man who falls passionately in love with a department-store mannequin and brings her home and sleeps with her, and then gets so jealous of an imagined affair she is having with his housekeeper that he dismantles her and tears her limbs off: “Her crime was his reckless empowerment. He tore into her with all the savagery of disappointed love, and his fingers were round her throat as she came, as they both came. And when he was done, her arms and legs and head had parted company with her torso, which he dashed against the bedroom wall. She lay in all corners, a ruined woman.”
The reader longs to read the whole story, rather than the tantalizing snatches we are given, but we do get to read the ending, which is simultaneously weird, uplifting, and alarming. “Though he, an ordinary fellow, had discovered for himself the awesome power of the imagination, he tried not to think of what had happened. He decided to banish the affair utterly, and such is the efficiency of the compartmentalized mind, he succeeded. He forgot all about her. And he never lived so intensely again.”
There is a moment of revelation (and you should stop reading here, if you don’t want to know what it is) when McEwan tears the meta-fabric of the novel: He reveals that Tom Haley has been writing Serena’s story all along, which is very satisfying (rather than slightly maddening as these things can sometimes be) because the mind game is so elegantly contrived, because it snaps into focus suddenly, this flimsy, fragile idea of what the perfect or ideal woman is, this ur-companion to the smart and sensitive man. We see, suddenly, what we have been reading all along, which is that this pliant, lovely, spirited, slightly vacant woman is a man’s fantasy of a woman. The troubling and slightly uncomfortable puzzle of the novel is solved. Serena is, in certain important ways, the department-store mannequin.