Click on the cover if you want to find out what all this has to do with Karen Osborns novel Centerville.
  • Click on the cover if you want to find out what all this has to do with Karen Osborn's novel Centerville.
Ian McEwan is the U2 of literary fiction. Consider the similarities: Every new release is a global event, and just about everyone but the most contrary of contrarians can agree that those efforts excel in terms of technical skill. At the same time, just about everyone agrees that the best days for the artist in question are over, and that their new efforts lack a certain urgency when compared to their earlier work. But if you're in search of something solid that just about everybody can agree on, U2 and McEwan are names you can trust.

McEwan's new novel, Sweet Tooth, is a perfectly good Ian McEwan novel. The characters are interesting enough, the plot grabs your attention, and everything is, you know, good. Sweet Tooth's protagonist is a young woman named Serena Frome, a self-described "dutiful young woman, determined to achieve what was expected of me." Frome works for British spy agency MI5 as a low-level recruiter for operation Sweet Tooth. With the nation in the midst of the Cold War—the book is set in 1972—Sweet Tooth is a secretive attempt to fund writers whose work is sympathetic to capitalism, and to Great Britain and her allies.

Frome enlists a dupe of a novelist named Tom Haley under a transparent cover story involving a magical-sounding foundation that offers Haley whatever money he needs, for whatever purpose he wants. He can do journalism, write a novel, whatever—Haley is considered safe enough that whatever work he produces is expected to be supportive of the forces of conformity and anti-Communist aggression. Frome was selected for Sweet Tooth because she is more literary-minded than just about anybody else in the agency—she's disgustingly well-read for her age—but her main job is to keep Haley happy, while making sure he does not discover the government's benefactory role.

Of course Frome and Haley fall into an affair, and of course things get complicated.... (Keep reading.)