10 September 2013

SWEET TOOTH: Sometimes I swear these men are out to get me

You know, it's funny, when I make my summer reading lists I don't often consider how all the books are related (apart from the most obvious connections). That LEAN IN and SWEET TOOTH sat next to each other on my list this year was just a coincidence and on their faces seemed to have nothing related. But the deeper Ian McEwan's 1970s spy chronicle delves into the more disorderly aspects of the espionage organization, the closer it resembled an example of an extremely sexist, dysfunctional workplace -- only one whose business is the business of state.

The spy in question, Serena Frome, is recruited from Cambridge to join MI5, after puttering around a little aimlessly with a math degree and a secret flighty penchant for books. A woman with little ambition other than to live in London rather than with her parents in their small village, Serena becomes involved with a professor who recommends her to a position at MI5, something she sees as fraught with excitement and mystery by the simple token of not being able to discuss her rather pedestrian filing and secretarial work. Then, unexpectedly, she is recruited for an operation called "Sweet Tooth," a sort of back-door propaganda program aimed at providing stipends to up-and-coming writers with anti-Communist leanings without them knowing that the government was behind it all.

Finally, some real spy stuff! Only, Serena's election for this program is primarily based on the fact that she is young, female and charming, the opposite of the cartoon MI5 agent. Serena herself doesn't think it will work as much as they do:
"I felt obliged to make some form of intelligent objection. ‘Won’t I be like your Mr. X, popping up with a checkbook? [The target] might run at the sight of me.’
"‘At the sight of you? I rather doubt it, my dear.’
"Again, low chuckles all around. I blushed and was annoyed. Nutting was smiling at me and I made myself smile back.”
If you're sensing a relationship beyond patronage, you are not wrong. Serena vets a Thomas Haley, a professor of no great fame toiling along on some short stories, and chooses him for the program. Then they embark on an affair, and things get really complicated.

Although Serena is trusted to run her own operation (or so she thinks), in the office she is given no favors from this designation; if anything her workload increases, because she is keeping tabs on Haley in addition to doing all the filing and paperwork. Her only male friend in the office drops her soon after and then comes back to give a big mansplainy speech about the business of spying because she has the nerve to be hurt that they hung out and he never mentioned he was engaged:
“’Are women really incapable of keeping their professional and private lives apart? I’m trying to help you, Serena. You’re not listening. Let me put it another way. In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big gray space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things—and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real. Am I making sense?’
“I didn’t think he was. I was on my feet with a clever retort ready, but he’d had enough of me. Before I could speak he said more quietly, ‘Best to go now. Just do your own work. Keep things simple.’”
Soon, Sweet Tooth consumes Serena's life; Haley is her only source of human interaction, after her best friend is let go from the agency (whose arc itself was really interesting and which I could've used more of) and she moves in with a bunch of unfriendly girls with seemingly "normal" jobs. Her roommates, after all, are just another group of people she risks discovery from.

SWEET TOOTH takes its time getting going but I was riveted from about 75 pages in, particularly at the contrast between the cloak-and-dagger spy work and the often dreary, sometimes hostile office environment. The feminist implications of her place in the agency, at a time when women were still relegated to the clerical side, bleed over into her work as Serena tries to read the expectations for her to succeed as an agent, knowing the odds are stacked against her. Of course because it's McEwan, you can expect a giant Whoa of a conclusion that you'll want to reread and a twist I found cruel but somehow fitting.

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