I don’t know what I was expecting when I started Sweetness #9. I had been hearing nothing but praise, I was vaguely aware of the Colbert connection, but hadn’t read so much as a plot summary before I picked this novel up for reviewing. Upon reading the inside flap, my expectations grew muddier if that was possible. My reaction was basically: A novel about a flavor chemist? Not sure where that’s going to go. This vaguely expectationless start may seem inauspicious, but let me tell you: Stephan Eirik Clark’s debut novel managed to set its own bar (pretty high, I might add) and then proceeded to surpass my wildest imaginings.
We start out in 1973. David Leveraux is a newly married and newly graduated flavor chemist, who landed his first gig with a major flavor company. Starting at the bottom of the flavor-building totem pole, David is a Flavorist-in-Training and is assigned to the animal testing department. His first project is to test the effects of a new artificial sweetener, Sweetness #9. When his findings turn out to be more negative than he is willing to accept, David finds himself unable to toe the company line and is let go. The story follows David through the events immediately following his decision not to blow the whistle on Sweetness #9 (now America’s most popular sweetener, commonly referred to as “The Nine”) through a series of twists and turns that ultimately reveal the true origin of the sickly sweet concoction.
Holy cow. Like I said before, I had zero expectations for this book, but after the first chapter Clark captured my attention with his engaging prose and thorough imagining of his character. David Leveraux is the best and worst person to be relating this story, as he is clearly biased in his perspective and also prone to anxiety and paranoia. The reader is pulled through the story, not sure whether or not to believe what they’re reading up until the very end of the novel. Indeed after shutting the book for the final time, I still have no idea whether or not I can trust the narrator of the story I was just told. Do I care? Not at all, because it was an amazing and well told story. Leveraux is such an intriguing character, readers will find him extremely sympathetic even while questioning his believability. Clark’s portrayal displays a deep understanding of this person he has created. Not one sentence is out of character. It’s truly masterful work.
As for the plot, it definitely could have jumped the shark any number of times, but I think Clark managed to tie together any and all threads in thoroughly entertaining ways that also flowed naturally from the characters that populate his story. Leveraux is decidedly not the same man at the end of the story, but although he ends in a completely surprising place it’s not at all at odds with the flow of events. Seamless character development and lots of intrigue move the story along at a fast clip.
Sweetness #9 is the perfect book to end the summer on. At once entertaining and thought-provoking, it’s a great book to transition out of fluffy summer reading and back into the intellectual pursuits of the fall. Bravo, Mr. Clark!
P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed the shout out the UC Davis writing program in the final chapters. Go Ags!