SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan (Knopf), 320 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
If you've been tracking Ian McEwan's transformation from edgy provocateur in the 70s to far more easygoing novelist since the turn of the century, mark Sweet Tooth - his 2012 release - as another step in the softening of the Brit novelist's rough edges.
It's 1972, and Serena, influenced by her much older lover Tony, has been inducted into British intelligence agency MI5. Thing is - and it's just one of many paradoxes in this sly narrative - there's nothing especially intelligent about Serena. She was a middling student and, as the emerging pop culture starts changing everything, reveals crushingly dull political views.
But she is an avid - and lightning-fast - reader, a skill her superiors tap when they involve her in the Sweet Tooth mission, a plan designed to recruit and fund writers whose work fits into the West's Cold War agenda.
Soon Serena is having a passionate affair with her "client" Tom, while telling him nothing about her real relationship to him.
What sounds like a tense situation is consistently leavened by the fact that McEwan doesn't seem to take his female protagonist very seriously - she rates Jacqueline Susann right up there with Jane Austen, for example. And he's added other parodic strokes, most notably making Tom an obvious riff on McEwan himself.
But in spite of his playfulness, McEwan has a serious intention. He wants to show the power of storytelling, which is the thrust of the Sweet Tooth strategy: what people read can change their hearts and minds.
Serena prepares for her first encounter with Tom - and begins to fall in love with him - by getting to know his stories, which are synopsized here (some of them carrying a whiff of McEwan's own early works). Everything she needs to know about Tom is in his work.
And McEwan himself is a wholly absorbing storyteller. Before you know it, he's completely swept you up.
But if he softens any more, he might turn to mush.