How the wife finds out? Ian McEwan

the book:

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

published 2012    chapter 2 set in the 1970s

Of course, the situation couldn’t last and it all came apart … The precise sequence of events is worth recording. There was a silk blouse…bought for me by Tony in early July. It was well chosen. I liked the expensive feel of it on a warm evening and Tony told me more than once how he liked the plain loose cut of it on me. I was touched. He was the first man in my life to buy me an article of clothing. A sugar daddy... It was an old-fashioned thing, this present, with a touch of kitsch about it, and awfully girlish, but I loved it. When I wore it I was in his embrace. The pale blue copperplate words on the label appeared distinctly erotic – ‘wild silk hand wash’. Round the neck and cuffs were bands of broderie anglaise, and two pleats on the shoulder were matched by two little tucks at the back. This gift was an emblem, I suppose. When it was time to come away, I would bring it back to my bedsit, wash it in the basin, and iron and fold it so that it would be ready for the next visit. Like me... In a passing moment of something like wifely entitlement, I lifted the wicker lid and dropped my blouse on top of his shirt and thought no more about it.

observations: This is a very complicated part of the plot, and not what it seems – of course his wife is going to find the blouse and everything will go wrong, but still, none of it seems convincing – either the surface version or an intermediate version, or the ultimate version. And a lot of weight  is put on this very slender device, even if the blouse does come from Liberty’s. McEwan has his getout - whatever you think about this book, it is hard to explain and criticize because of spoilers, and because problems, unconvincing bits and unsuccessful bits might have their own reasoning. Still, as we said before, it’s a rattling good yarn, and very absorbing. A clothes mystery in the book: Serena, the narrator, speaks twice about 'boxing socks' (an activity rather than an item of sports clothing) – it is something her mother does for her father – what does it mean?

The book is full of culture and particularly book references – Serena in her youth likes to claim
Valley of the Dolls is as good as Jane Austen – and, even better, a long if possibly off-topic discussion of the Monty Hall probability problem. The whole book might be designed to please those of us who feel we could speak with authority on Jacqueline Susann, Jane Austen AND Monty Hall.

Links up with: an orange silk gown decorated this entry about Sweet Tooth; another troubled empire with spies is
here; affairs are among the many plot strands in this book.
The picture is by Paul Gauguin, and is in an Art Museum in Brussels.


  1. Moira - It does sound like a story with lots of complex twists and turns, even if it does have problems. And I do like historical fiction. Hmmmm.....I might give this a go.

  2. I had issues with it, but enjoyed it - I should have a special acronym for that phrase, because I so often use it about books! The heroine is a little bit older than I am, but I very much recognized the world she moved in (in terms of attitudes as much as geography), and it did remind me what the 1970s were like! Certainly kept me reading - I read it on a long train journey, and it was absolutely ideal for that.

  3. I liked the unconvincing nature of the wife's discovery and the husband's reaction to Serena - and the author's real intention revealed later. You never quite know where you are with this novel. Clever.

  4. PS I too recognise a lot about Serena's world - like you I am a bit younger than her but a lot of it sure resonates. What a stuffy place it was then.


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