The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan
Holly Robin’s Rating: 3.8 out of 5
This book makes me never want to leave the country! (That’s a lie, but almost.) It’s a haunting tale about two lovers on “holiday” (as the Euro’s say), who’s trip is marred by the introduction of a local couple who are a little too friendly to our touring main characters.
Mary and Colin are on va-cay in what is most likely Venice, Italy. They’re British, and having difficulties adjusting to a different culture and language, thus causing them to view the city from the safety of the hotel balcony. Through their time spent at the hotel we learn about their relationship—and relationships— in general. Mary and Colin are described by McEwan as one of those couples comprised of two gorgeous people (like Bradgelina or GoslingMcAdams). They’re the types that leave you hopeful for the future of mankind solely because their offspring are going to be fantastically beautiful.
M and C have a super intense connection. One minute they can’t stand the others’ voice/look/aura, and the next they’re making love like crazy all around the hotel room. It introduces one of McEwan themes about man’s emotional dependence on another. Is commitment to another person inherent, or brought on by society? And is man really an animal that is meant to be attached to one individual for their remaining years? Are we a monogamous species? Love the one you’re with…unless of course you don’t love him/her, then maybe it’s not a good idea.
So after spending a long afternoon rolling around in the sheets, Mary and Colin go out into the world to tour the city. The problem is, it’s late and all the places are closed. The couple meets a man named Robert who leads them to a hidden bar known only to the locals. A bottle of wine later, Robert tells them his whole life story— about his strange father and sad childhood and lots of other details you wouldn’t expect a stranger to tell you on the first night of meeting.
Mary and Colin are thankful of Robert’s hospitality but a little concerned by his openness (as they should be). Days go by and they continue to run into Robert out on the street. He invites them to his place where they meet his shy and demure wife, Caroline. The real trouble begins when Mary finds multiple photographs of Colin in their apartment, suggesting that Robert and Caroline have been following them during their whole vacation.
Things get really, really scary when Caroline opens up to Mary about her sex life with Robert. It involves a lot of sadistic role play that I won’t repeat for fear of blushing. Anyway, I won’t spoil the ending for you, but things go very badly.
The major message of the book, I believe, is the dwelving into of different kinds of relationships. On one pretty, manicured hand we have M and C, struggling to discover if their love can last forever in holy matrimony. The other twisted, scarred, mangled hand holds Caroline and Robert, two married people in love, but in a very sick way. They are the definition of a relationship gone wrong because they bring out the very worst in the other person. A relationship is meant to highlight an individual’s strentghs, teaching them love and compassion, and essentially patience/compromise.
Thing’s I’ve learned from The Comfort of Strangers: don’t get too friendly with the locals. Avoid sex maniacs. Don’t go inside an apartment of a stranger. Being polite isn’t always a good idea.
This book was also made into a movie with Christopher Walken as Robert. Creepy!!