What Do Women Want? Ian McEwan's Characters Are Never Sure

His novels up until the new Sweet Tooth wrung tragedy from men's inability to understand females. But things are a little different this time.

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Two voices compete for our attention in Ian McEwan's new book, Sweet Tooth. One is that of MI5 agent Serena Frome, who narrates the framing plot about an affair she had with a writer named Tom Haley. The other is Tom's, contained in snippets of his fiction interspersed throughout the novel. It's his voice that compels us more, though, in part because the stories Tom tells—taken from fiction ideas stored up in McEwan's notebook—are the ones McEwan has always been comfortable telling: tragedies about the misunderstandings that separate men from women.

One of Tom's vignettes is about a man who falls in love with a mannequin. He sees "her" posing in a shop window, as if "she was pursuing a thought... wrist turned outwards as she lost herself to an idea. Or perhaps a memory..." He becomes desperate to know this imagined conscience; its aloofness "was a goad, a piercing enticement." Another tale, "Pawnography," is about a marriage collapsing under the pressure of monotony and poverty. A break-in occurs when the husband, Sebastian, is at work—or so his wife tells him. He instead finds out that it was she who had taken their things and pawned them. Betrayal elicits in Sebastian a maddening arousal: "He is excited by that glance because it came from a stranger ... He had got her all wrong. She was no longer familiar."

Tom's females are enigmas that fiction promises to expose. It's a theme with a long history in literature—Samuel Richardson's Clarissa has been called the first and completest portrayal of consciousness; Isabel Archer and Mrs. Dalloway followed in subsequent centuries. McEwan inherits the tradition knowingly (Richardson even gets a mention in McEwan's Atonement as being "a fine psychologist"). Women glide through his books always with simultaneous familiarity and strangeness. "He had always known her, he knew nothing about her"—so Robbie muses in Atonement upon his encounter with Cecilia. Leonard of The Innocent reflects that Maria has "the sort of face, the sort of manner, onto which men were likely to project their own requirements." Edward in On Chesil Beach convinces himself that Florence's shyness was "in all, part of the intricate depth of her personality, and proof of her quality," what he imagines to be the "veil for a richly sexual nature," heightening his attraction.

The elusiveness captivates, then ruins. How woefully, disastrously wrong Edward is about Florence. She remains impenetrable, in mind and in body. His ignorance of the first impenetrability and anger at second drives them apart on their wedding night. We realize from the beginning, though, that Edward and Florence are "almost strangers... strangely together," and no amount of love will overcome the gulf between them. The tragedy is made greater by its feeling of inevitability, established page after page. Florence is untangled for us, the reader looking in on her fictional realm, but entirely opaque to the husband next to her in the text. "He did not know," we are told, "or would not have cared to know." Therein lies the tension.

McEwan's skill as a writer lies in how deftly he controls these tensions and delivers them to the reader. In Black Dogs, Jeremy sets out to write a memoir about his estranged in-laws, June and Bernard. June's encounter with the titular black dogs comes to define her, unmasking irreconcilable differences between man and wife. Bernard holds contempt for June's spirituality, until eventually "the ideas by which June lived her life [became] the ones by which she measured the distance between Bernard and herself." Jeremy relays onto the page Bernard and June's separate tellings of their story, so that in reading our feelings and Jeremy's coincide. McEwan the modernist is at work here. Jeremy gives voice to our thoughts, because his frustrations become ours, too. "You never listened to what she was telling you," he accuses Bernard. "She wouldn't listen either."

What June calls growth Bernard calls delusion; where Bernard sees steadfastness, June sees stagnation. The woman evolves, the man gets left behind—hence the break. Stephen, separated from his wife after their child is lost, reflects on this at length in The Child in Time:

What he frequently regarded in Julie as contradictory (But that's not what you said last year!), she maintained was development (Because last year I hadn't yet understood!)...Where once he had believed, or thought he ought to believe, that men and women were, beyond all the obvious physical difference, essentially the same, he now suspected that one of their many distinguishing features was precisely their attitudes to change. Past a certain age, men froze into place; they tended to believe that, even in adversity, they were somehow at one with their fates.

These attitudes are the source of discomfort in the Sweet Tooth story "This is Love", where an atheist falls prey to a devout woman's evangelizing schemes. He marries her, losing himself to her religious demands and dictums—but finding no spiritual awakening. As for his wife: "She knows that though the way had been hard and she had suffered for her pains, she was bringing her husband ever closer to Jesus and this, her single most important achievement in life, had only been possible through the redeeming and enduring power of love."

Pessimism is the pervading message again and again. June dies with a "lifetime's disharmony" unresolved, imbuing Black Dogs with its vague sadness. In On Chesil Beach, Florence and Edward's life together is un-lived. We learn at the end of Atonement that Robbie and Cecilia are reunited only in the fiction within the fiction (children, in McEwan's works, are as destructive a narrative force as men in their misconceptions of womanhood—girlish Briony's calamitous mistake comes of having no insight into her older sister Cecilia; Julie's sudden transition into womanhood in The Cement Garden is traumatic and a bit gross).

Even in endings where McEwan allows a glimpse of hope, the small redemptions never make up for the greater tragedies. The daughter remains lost to Stephen in The Child in Time, and the years can never be reclaimed by Leonard and Maria in The Innocent. Tom's story "Pawnography" concludes beckoning us to imagine "the unavoidable future, all the sorrow and confusion to come."

At first glance, the larger arc of Sweet Tooth, too, would seem to bend towards disaster. A Cold War love story, Serena falls for the man she's meant to be handling: Tom, the unknowing recipient of funds from her Operation Sweet Tooth. Serena—doubly mysterious, woman and spy—seems an invitation to disaster. And Serena's first-person narration feels withdrawn, with motives left unexplained and the reader kept at a distance.

But Sweet Tooth proves to be a departure. Tom's short stories are several shades darker than the novel that contains them, and from the beginning Serena's tone promises nothing too grave (McEwan's other Cold War novel, The Innocent, had a climax involving death and dismemberment). McEwan uses a favorite conceit—a clever diegetic dislocation, a blurring of the relationship between text and reader seen in many of his works—to make Sweet Tooth's ending not just happy, but incontrovertibly so. "Pessimism begins to feel something like a badge that you perhaps do not wear so easily" with age, McEwan once said. "There is something delicious and reckless about the pessimism of being 21. And when you get older you feel maybe a little more delicate and hope that things will flourish." That shift is born out in this book. Though Serena is as elusive as any McEwan heroine, for once it need not hurt.

But hurt, it seems, is what's needed. Its absence next to Tom's stories rings rather un-McEwan-esque. We learn at the end why Serena's narration has none of the intimacy of Tom's short stories or McEwan's other novels. Sweet Tooth proves to be the work of an optimist, but the power of McEwan's earlier works is sacrificed to the cause.