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The Comfort of Strangers
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171 of 190 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2010
Format: Paperback
I have been a great fan of Ian McEwan's novels for many years and I came across The Comfort of Strangers completely unaware that it was one of his early efforts. I started it full of the expectation which I naturally reserve for a favourite writer.

I hadn't got far into it before the alarm bells started ringing.

Quick plot summary. Two very strange and stupid people go on holiday and meet two lunatics who do really horrible things to them for no apparent reason.

Colin and Mary are on holiday in Venice. For some bizarre reason the name of the city is never mentioned, and given that there is literally nowhere else on this earth that it could possibly be, it comes across as a particularly pompous literary device. Anyway, Colin and Mary are not speaking and we never find out why. They are preparing for their ritual evening of cocktails followed by dinner. They seem vague, detached, disinterested and bored. At the time I thought that this could be interesting as there is so much not said but having waded through this turgid tome I don't feel it's much of spoiler to advise you not to hold your breath.

Well, anyway, for no apparent reason they suddenly forgive each other and decide to make love (and what a lacklustre event this is - indeed, describing their love-making in general the author informs us that they quite often nod off in the middle of a session) which delays their plans for the evening. Now here the author would have us believe that all the restaurants in one of the top tourist destinations in the world are closed by 9pm. Colin and Mary know this too but they go out anyway. They have been lost many times before but they don't take the maps. (What?) And what happens? Yes, they get lost!

They meet a stranger called Robert who won't stop touching them - so much that they both ask him to stop. Robert takes them to a gay bar that he apparently owns. There is no food in this bar (the cook is ill) so they drink several bottles of wine. Robert tells them his life story. His father and his beastly sisters were very unkind to him. Conveniently, Robert speaks English extraordinarily well which absolves Colin and Mary of the necessity of being fluent in Italian.

They leave the bar and Colin and Mary, having not thought of the most obvious solution to their present problem, that is asking directions from Robert who is a local, let him simply walk away and they continue being lost. They sleep in the street. (What?) They wake up very thirsty and can't find a cafe in Venice. (What?) Mary informs Colin that he hasn't shaved. This is actually not true at all. Their meticulous toilette was described quite specifically before they left the hotel 12 hours previously, including the detail that Colin was indeed shaving for the second time that day. It was just before they made love so she should have noticed it then (oh, of course I'm forgetting she was probably asleep!) They decide to go to the hospital of all places because they might be able to get a drink of water. (What?) Nothing happens but now they don't appear to be lost so much so they decide to head back to the hotel via St Mark's Square. Hey presto, there are some cafes here! They are still very very thirsty (indeed Mary's lips are cracked) but the nasty waiter won't give them any water. (What?) He does tell them where there is a tap but they ignore this and stay and order coffee. Robert happens to walk past and he invites them to his place. They accept and leave in a boat with him before their coffee arrives (still presumably dying of thirst).

[If I may just interrupt here to say that I have been to Italy several times (including Venice) and the standard response when you ask for water is 'Sí, Signore, acqua minerale o naturale?' - 'Yes sir, mineral water or natural?' Also this business of being lost is just not credible - of course you can get momentarily confused in those little streets but the Grand Canal is only ever a stone's throw away from anywhere, and I am mystified as to how McEwan can possibly expect the millions upon millions of people who have been there to believe that these two had to resort to sleeping in the street.]

Colin and Mary wake up in Robert's house and they can't find their clothes. (What?) Mary does some shoulder stands anyway with nothing on. (What?) She finds a nightie so she goes on a tour of the house leaving Colin naked and alone. She meets Robert's wife Caroline (for the first time) who notices how Mary wolfs down the single biscuit she is offered, so staggers off to prepare many sandwiches for her. Mary doesn't mention Colin who is still alone and naked in the bedroom and who apparently hasn't eaten anything for about 36 hours. The two women discuss murder. (As you do). Colin joins them wearing only a handtowel. Caroline tells them she has been looking at them while they were asleep and naked. (What?) She invites them to dinner and they accept. (What?)

During drinks before dinner Robert takes Colin into another room and punches him in the stomach causing him to collapse on the floor. (What?) Colin does not question this. (What?) He also doesn't consider it necessary to mention what just happened to the ladies when they rejoin them. In fact he doesn't tell Mary about it for four more days! (WHAT?) They continue with cocktails during which Robert fondles Colin's shoulders. (What?) After dinner Caroline invites them to return and they accept. (What?) She explains that she can't leave the house because she is so badly injured. No-one asks what happened to her. (What?) It turns out later that she has masochistic tendencies and she never really got over that last broken back (Huh?)

Colin and Mary return to their hotel and, inexplicably, indulge in a 4-day frenzy of sex and gluttony. (What?) At meal times they have 1½ courses each and 2 bottles of wine each. Not one hangover or bout of vomiting is mentioned. (Now, I don't know about you but I reckon Colin must be made of very stern stuff if he can consume such a vast amount of alcohol and still manage to ravish his girlfriend several times a day for four days). They discuss orgasms. Colin reveals that he has an aching emptiness somewhere between his scrotum and his anus. (Good grief! Do we really need to know this?) They also reveal some rather obscene fantasies to each other which I won't bore you with here. Suffice to say that I'm glad I wasn't eating at the time I read this.

The next morning Mary reveals that while they were at Robert and Caroline's for dinner she saw a photo of Colin that Robert showed her. She apparently didn't ask Robert how he came to have this, nor did she didn't mention it then to Colin or during the next 4 days. (What?) She is very frightened. Colin would understandably be a bit spooked too but his reaction isn't mentioned.

On a completely overcast day (the sky is described as being black!) Colin and Mary decide to go to the beach. Just before they leave Colin sticks his finger deep inside Mary, (What?) but they remind each other they are going to the beach and they pull apart to pack the towels. They have a bitch of a time finding a spot on the beach but they do and then Mary nearly drowns. Well, no actually she wasn't drowning at all - she was just having a lovely swim but Colin was absolutely certain she was in peril and spent ages stroking out to save her, nearly drowning himself in the process. (What?)

On the way back they decide not to go all the way round the island so they get off the boat at a different stop and who should they run into? That's right. Those two loonies. So what do they do in their infinite wisdom? They go into their house. (Oh God almighty!)

Need I go on?

The grisly denouement is just as bizarre as the rest of it and will leave you scratching your head with mystification.
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78 of 87 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
This is probably the most effective horror novel I've ever read. Not that there are demons, monsers, or flying body bits, but in that it lays bare some truly horrifying facets of human nature, and what they can cause people to do. It's haunting and not for the timid. Or the weak of stomach.
Colin and Mary are lovers on vacation in Italy, increasingly bored and uninterested in one another. They amble around hotels and tourist streets without any genuine interest. Then they accidently bump into Robert, a seemingly friendly man with an unhappy family history and an initially harmless attachment to the couple.
From there, Colin and Mary stay with Robert and his crippled wife Caroline, who seems friendly but oddly insistent that they stay for awhile. Colin and Mary rediscover their physical attraction to one another, but they also are increasingly uneasy with the forceful friendship of Robert and Carllin. And soon that friendship is revealed as terrible, erotic, and violent.
Ian McEwan's books remind me of those movies where the skies are cloudy, the alleys are dank, and everybody is hiding secret motives. There is a sort of dark aura from the beginning on the book onward, as if tragedy is creeping up from page one onward. Despite this gradual buildup, and the increasingly horrific life stories that Robert and Caroline tell, the climax is a horrible shock.
McEwan's writing swings freely between oddly dreamlike and shockingly vivid -- if anything, the vividity of his writing is more so because the weird stuff is written in such poetic prose. His dialogue is mostly good, except when the characters launch into philosophical ramblings about women and men and whether women want to be dominated. He is extremely talented in portraying the few characters -- Colin and Mary are bland but essentially harmless, while Caroline and Robert crackle with energy, but, they are extremely frightening. This book is not one for kids, it has a lot of sexual content, including some really twisted, frightening stuff. Heck, some adults may not like it.
It's a quick read, took me only half an hour to read it. But it's dark and haunting, and not for thw weak of heart.
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40 of 52 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Many of the trademarks we have come to expect in McEwan novels are already here in this early novel published in the U. S. in 1981, the ironic title, the complexity, the psychological tension, the ambiguities, the questions left unanswered. I was handicapped in reading this novel in that I had already seen the movie so it was impossible not to see Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson getting lost in those maze-like alleys in Venice. (Nowhere in this slim novel, however, does McEwan name the city where the sinister action takes place.} On the other hand, since I knew the outcome, I could look for and admire the clues the author gives as to what will happen. McEwan does an excellent job of setting the tone for what ultimately occurs early in the novel. As early as page 17: "Colin and Mary had never left the hotel so late, and Mary was to attribute much of what followed to this fact." There are lots of references to the sexual tension between men and women in addition to many homoerotic allusions throughout the book that prepare you, at least in part, for the shattering climax of this horrific little novel.
McEwan always gives the reader a story that appeals both to the intellect and the emotions. As usual, he doesn't disappoint us. One of the joys of living in these times is awaiting a new McEwan novel.
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19 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2001
Format: Paperback
From the back cover, I thought that this would be a book that I could read on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Central Park. In my naivete, I didn't realize that it would be the kind of book that would continue to disturb my thoughts even after I shelved it unfinished. This book produces nightmares. It's well-written. It captures the mood of traveling. But, unfortunately, it will be a book that I am simply unable to pick up again with a plot I'd prefer to forget. Having said all this, I know a person whose literary taste (and stronger stomach) I hightly respect who has admitted that it was this book that caused him to run out and buy all of Ian McEwan's books.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This book has nothing to recommend it. I usually like the twists and turns his books take but this book was dark from the beginning. Writing about depravity for the sake of shocking readers is not a worthy goal and I feel that is what this book was about. You could see the end at the beginning.
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15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 31, 2004
Format: Paperback
I should start out by saying that I was not among those who felt that the novelist's later work, "Amsterdam", lived up to the hype and acclaim that it received. I enjoyed that story, but I am sure there were other works that were more deserving of the Booker Prize. That said, I was more absorbed by this story, finding it both suffocating and intense.

McEwan gives a very graphic and descriptive sense of a city, presumably Venice, where a bored couple, Colin and Mary, find themselves for a languorous vacation, filling in the days with aimless wandering, pot-smoking and sex, on occasion. The street sounds, the high-walled, narrow lanes and alleyways, add to the sense of entrapment that gradually makes its way into the emotional state of the main characters. Their encounter, which they later come to realize was by design, with the jovial but intense Robert, leaves them non-plussed but curious. Their time with Robert, and then his wife Caroline, brings them almost unconsciously under an unspoken kind of spell that results in a rediscovery of passion bordering on obsession for eachother. Perhaps more rational people would have fled much earlier from Robert - of course, if they had, there would be no story, or perhaps a different story to tell here. Colin and Mary, both blinded by their idealism, allowed themselves to be manipulated by a person with a deeply obsessive personality, who embraces fantasy with a dangerous exuberance. The story leaves questions where we look for answers, raises doubts when we think we have it figured out, and through it all, McEwan writes with a kind of macabre relish that is at times discomfiting, but left me impressed by the storytelling.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2002
Format: Paperback
.............Wow, what a wild ride this was.
It's about Mary and Colin, a dating couple in a stale 7 year relationship. While on vacation in an un-named location, which you are never told where they are but you know they are amongst lots of other tourists, open air cafe's by the ocean, narrow cobble stone streets, ruins and assorted attractions.
One night the couple set out to have a late dinner and become lost. A strange but friendly man named Robert comes to their rescue or so it seems......Robert takes them to a bar which has no food and gets them drunk as he tells them stories about his childhood and his wife Caroline.
Later they run into Robert again and he invites them to his home so he can make up for the other night promising to feed them and introduce them to his wife. That's when ........it all begins........!
I will not give any more away, but Mary and Colin end up recapturing their love only to find themselves involved in something like the "Twilight Zone". I could not put this book down. The ending will amaze you!
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 26, 2003
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
McEwan is a wonderful descriptive writer. For example: "In one direction, the street vanished into total darkness; in the other, a diffused blue-gray light was making visible a series of low buildings which descended like blocks cut in granite and converged in the gloom where the street curved away. Thousands of feet above, an attenuated finger of cloud pointed across the line of the curve and reddened. A cool, salty wind blew along the street and stirred a cellophane wrapper against the step on which Colin and Mary were sitting."
In my opinion, McEwan's goal in "The Comfort of Strangers" is to exercise his marvelous descriptive powers, which truly allow the reader to see and feel the experiences of Colin and Mary, his primary characters. At the same time, this descriptive power seems complete, in and of itself, and makes it unnecessary for McEwan to have much of a story. Indeed, his plot might be summed up as two disorganized people not really connecting, on their vacation.
For me, this book was an intense and pleasurable read, with its prose as exacting and suggestive as fine poetry. This, perhaps, explains why the book's ending seems arbitrary and contrived. The book, after all, is not about plot but about the power of great writing to capture experience. At the book's climax, my marginalia say "What?!" Read "The Comfort of Strangers" and see what I mean.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Mary and Colin are an attractive English couple on holiday in an unnamed Italian locale which sounds a lot like Venice. She is a divorcee with two children who are back at home with their father. The two are growing weary of their time together and on one night, get lost in the winding roads of the town. Robert, a stranger, insists on helping them and eventually they visit with his wife, who is clearly trapped in her home and may be physically abused. They leave and the next few days show the couple having odd conversations about their relationship. They find themselves drawn back to Caroline and Robert after Mary remembers seeing a photo of Colin in their home. From there, it takes a tragic turn as Mary is drugged into paralysis and watches as Robert and Caroline kill Colin and flee the city. Mary is left to explain what has happened to the unsympathetic police while she tries to make sense of it all.

The best scene in this story is when Mary and Colin have a talk where Mary tells Colin she would like to cut off all of his limbs so he could just be a sexual object for her and her friend and Colin telling her he would devise a machine to feed her through one tube, remove waste through another, and the machine would continually have sex with her - even after she died -until he turned it off. Given that exchange, it is not surprising that neither is bothered by the idea of Caroline being abused. It also makes Caroline and Robert's fetish far more tame. I don't really understand why they killed Colin and left Mary or why they packed-up and left when it would seem that they had spent so much time in the town that people could find them. Also, was the death sexual? Was Mary raped while paralyzed? How did she explain what happened when she got back to England? Most importantly, did she even care - or did their utter boredom drive them to this end?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Warning- detailed summary gives away the plot

Mary and Collin, an unmarried couple of seven years on vacation, go to a city, which from the descriptions is Venice. They have an acceptable to good relationship. They have a certain form of intimacy and passion that works for them.

In the city, one evening, they get lost and are aided by a strange man, strange in his actions. He is Robert. Robert, for the couple to spend the night, takes them to his home, which is like a museum. He has a wife, Caroline, who seems to be the victim of marital abuse. Caroline and Robert's relationship is peculiar and so is the way Robert takes and hides couple's clothes while they sleep. He has told Caroline not to give them back until they agree to stay the day there until Robert arrives from work, which he owns a bar.

In this first encounter a few other peculiar incidents happen.

Still a few days later, Mary and Collin visit the couple again, to find the couple have packed up and will leave the city to visit Caroline's family. Robert takes Collin to his bar and Caroline serves tea to Mary, which is drugged. While Mary is under the influence, Caroline explains to her the nature of her and Robert's sadomasochistic relationship. Robert and Colin return.

Caroline aids Robert to slash Colin's wrists as the drugged and paralyzed Mary watches in horror. Mary later wakes up in the hospital to find that Collin has died, and Robert and Caroline have left. The police tell her that this type of a crime is very common in this city.

I found the writing to be exceptionally skillful and the storytelling masterful, but the plot is downright sick. I could condone the sadomasochism to a degree, but since when murder is erotic?

I have read Amsterdam and Atonement by the same author and thought they were amazing, but the plot of this book is over the top for me.
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