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Patty Osborne's Blog

Ian McEwan, what are ya doin'?

Patty Osborne

The narrator of Ian McEwan's latest book, Sweet Tooth (Random House) is a young woman named Serena who labours away in the bowels of MI5 until she gets her first active assignment: to recruit an up-and-coming writer named Tom who seems to be on the correct side of the Cold War.

Before Serena meets Tom, she reads all his published work and then paraphrases and quotes it for us (she's the narrator) and after she and Tom become lovers she does the same with Tom's unpublished stories as he writes them. So who would you rather be reading, Ian McEwan, who is a master at his craft, or Tom What's-his-name, who isn't nearly as good as McEwan—which is understandable: if you were going to create a character who is a writer, you wouldn't want him to as good as or better than you, would you? Yet we're compelled by Serena to read along even as we are wishing she'd get on with it so we could get back to the really good writing. Are we getting cranky yet?

Then McEwan throws in a classic statistics puzzle, the solution to which many of us, including Tom, will fail to grasp, although of course Tom will write about it and Serena will tell us what he writes about it. About this point I realized that my "7-Day Speed Read" loan from the library was almost up, so I went straight to the last chapter to see how things came out—the story was strong enough to make me care—and then, since I had a few hours left, I went back and read enough to fill in the blanks. Disrespectful, I know, but like I said, I was feeling cranky.

Lots of twists and turns and a good dose of human inadequacies, plus confirmation of how sexist the British Secret Service was (and maybe still is), but not enough good stuff to change my mood.

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