Sweet Tooth and Shop Girl

I just finished a book called Sweet Tooth, written by Ian McEwan. He wrote the book Atonement also which is a film I absolutely loved so I had high hopes. They were not fulfilled.

The book describes itself as kind of a coming of age, a tale of lies and romance and spying and whatever else they put on the dustjacket. I found it a tale of youthful angst, foolishness, and not even any kind of moral to justify the foolishness and conceit of his main characters. The book opens on a young woman, Serena, just finishing secondary school in Britain during the Cold War. She is somewhat aimless, in a relationship with a man she can’t satisfy but who is content to love hew physically, and wholly self indulgent. She begins a relationship with an older professor and becomes the mistress until after graduation. He finds her a job with MI6, leaves her, and allows her to essentially find her own way. All this is punctuated by long, self indulgent monologues about the suspected motives of other characters that I personally found to increase Serena’s arrogance. It reminds me of a British Twilight: a Mary Jane with little to no personality, inexplicably loved by everyone she meets and who never has a real obstacle to overcome in the entire novel. The second half of the novel follows Serena through a promotion she didn’t earn and a relationship based on dishonesty which culminates in a contrived plot twist that is supposed to make the reader suddenly empathize with her and realize that the whole time her arrogance is justified because she’s been right about everything. It was one of the most difficult books to force myself to finish since Les Meserable and didn’t have the epic story line or the moral outrage to hold the reader’s interest. Overall I found it to be shallow and condescending.

I did find one literary device to be interesting: When Serena is preparing to solicit a young writer to write for the government, she reads his short stories as part of her handling of an undercover agent. We are treated to a summary of his short stories, complete with italicized lines drawn from this supposedly inspired writer. I found the use of passages from the book to be a good way to draw me in and help me develop interest in the short stories which I felt were far more interesting than Sweet Tooth as a whole. I also found her analysis of her relationship with this author/secret government agent interesting when she compared herself to characters in stories he had written. She thinks things like “He did x like the character in his story” and uses the stories as a window into this young man as she develops a deeper love for him.

I compared it to another book I read some time ago called Shop Girl, written by Steve Martin. My first shock at that book was finding out that he is not only an accomplished actor, but a skilled writer and also talented banjo player. Neat guy. Anyway, the reason I compare the books is that they are both about young women in relationships with both older men and then younger men later on. They are both about a young woman’s formative years and they both are from her perspective, written by men. Where Sweet Tooth felt as though it was wishful thinking by an older man wishing he had the love of a young woman and pretending he understood them, Shop Girl felt more like it was written by a father, to other fathers, showing them that a young, independent woman can have relationships with whomever she chooses and, while they may not be perfect or seemly, they can be happy and good and a learning experience.

Shop girl opens in a quiet department store in the glove section with a young bored girl named Mirabelle leaning on the counter, watching people in cosmetics. It’s familiar, mundane, made special only by the presence of this girl and her few customers. Mirabelle and Serena share an aimlessness and interest in an older man followed by an interest in one of the same age.The older lovers, a professor in Serena’s case and a businessman in Mirabelle’s, are purported to be wise, they take care of the young women, genuinely love them, but don’t end the relationships well in either case. The young lovers, a musician for Mirabelle and a writer for Serena, are a bit daft, mildly charming, broke, and redeem themselves in the end. Both young women have some sort of learning experiences, but Serena seems to be simply proven right at every turn while Mirabelle actually does some character building and ends the novella a different person than she started as.

The more I write about it the more I feel that is my problem with Sweet Tooth: everyone is so damn right all the time. The older lover is right to end the relationship the way he did, even though it was emotionally destructive: it’s ok in the end. Serena was right to lie to her agent, even though it was really rough, int he end it was the right thing to do. Her jealous rival was right to drive wedges into her relationship because it all worked out in the end and we’re all right and smug as shit about it. It’s as if McEwan didn’t want to do any actual character development so he just introduced stock characters at the appropriate times. Shop girl is a tenth the length, has three main characters and half a dozen supporting roles, and tells a far fuller, more complex, touching, and real story than Sweet Tooth.