The Comfort of Strangers

The Comfort of Strangers (1981) is a short novel by Ian McEwan about a couple on vacation in an unnamed city which fits the description of Venice, Italy.

Mary and Colin are neither married, nor living together, but have known each other for some time, and are in a loving but strained relationship.  During their vacation, they spend their days in their hotel room, making love, taking naps, and looking out at the city and smoking pot from the comfort of their balcony. When they have to leave their room, they do so to eat, or sight see with the aide of a map; the usual things couples do while on vacation. They are comfortable and intimate with each other, but their relationship isn’t exactly passionate, and their vacation, though seemingly grand, isn’t exactly exciting.  In fact, everything about the couple exudes boredom.

During one of their routine evening trips out of their hotel in search for food, they meet a strange man in a dark alley who, guaranteeing that there are no other restaurants open, takes them to a bar frequented by locals.  They are given wine to drink, but in lieu of food, the strange man, who introduces himself as Robert, shares with them stories of his childhood, and his family, especially his father.

With stomachs empty and head spinning with Robert’s strange stories, Mary and Colin leave the bar in the wee hours of the morning, but were unable to find their way back to their hotel.  They end up sleeping on the streets, and upon waking in the morning, they resume their search for food and drinks.   They wander the tourist-filled streets looking for a vacant table among the many outdoor cafes.  Tired, hungry, and irritable, and being thoroughly ignored by arrogant waiters, they see Robert again among the crowd, and though they hoped he would not see them, Robert heads towards their table, and cordially invites them to his home for refreshments and much needed rest.

Robert’s apartment is less a home than a shrine for his father.  Robert and his wife Caroline’s home is filled with rugs, paintings, furniture and everyday knick knacks owned by Robert’s grandfather and father.  During their brief stay at Robert and Caroline’s apartment, Mary and Colin notice strange things about the couple’s behavior and lifestyle.  Robert’s wife, Caroline is quiet and fragile, but seems to have a desperate air about her.  Robert, when around Caroline, seems rough, aggressive, even violent.

After their evening with Robert and Caroline, Mary and Colin, whether due to the other couple’s influence, or out of fear which neither want to express, experience a sort of renewal of passion in their relationship.  Their mutual need for comfort from each other rekindles long forgotten passions as well as creates hope for improving their relationship.  Mary and Colin spend days basking in each other’s love, passion, admiration.  However, the shadows of Robert and Caroline mar the otherwise blissful, at least on the surface, days of Mary and Colin during the last days of their vacation.

Whether out of curiosity or perversity of intruding into strangers’ lives, Mary and Colin return to Robert and Caroline’s apartment, surprised that while the couple had packed up their belongings ready to go abroad, they expressed how they had been eagerly awaiting and planning for Mary and Colin’s return visit.  While Robert takes Colin to the bar they visited during their first meeting on some errands, Caroline confides some very disturbing secrets about herself and Robert to Mary.  What happens next, when Robert returns with Colin, is the chilling climax of the novel, which will either confirm the reader’s suspicions of the plot’s inevitable conclusion, or else leave them in a state of confusion and disbelief.

Ian McEwan is a master at writing about seemingly normal characters and ordinary situations, only to later distort their world and push their limits to the extreme fringes of conventionality. The Comfort of Strangers tackles the complex dynamics of the different aspects of a relationship – intimacy, sex, domination, submission, and even violence, as well as the roles of men and women, not only in a relationship, but also in society. It also seems to be a critique of patriarchal society, with its culture of misogyny and violence.  The Comfort of Strangers  gives expression to things that many couples think about without actually voicing out, such as experimenting with desires and sexual acts, pushing the limits of normalcy and morality; disturbing sexual fantasies that even the most boring couples have, but are enacted only by a daring few.

Though I found The Comfort of Strangers fascinating and  compelling, I can’t exactly say if I liked the novel.  It has a lot of  strange opposing qualities.  Its characters are dull, yet intriguing; its plot interesting, boring, disturbing, and shocking all at the same time. Overall, I think it left me in a minor state of shock and disbelief, even for an Ian McEwan novel.


The Comfort of Strangers (1981) – Ian Mcewan

Vinage; 100 pages

Personal rating:  3.5/5

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