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[266] The Comfort of Strangers – Ian McEwan

” But they knew each other much as they knew themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of perpetual concern; together they moved slowly, clumsily, effecting lugubrious compromises, attending to delicate shifts of mood, repairing breaches. As individuals they did not easily take offense; but together they managed to offend each other in surprising unexpected ways;…” [13]

Mood, both suspenseful and sinister, bodes the shocking ending of The Comfort of Strangers. The cleverness lays in the fact that a tale of romantic ennui quickly forays into erotic menace and most unexpectedly, a violent crime story. The brooding, the muttering under the breath, the standoffish silence all remind one of On Chesil Beach as the air is charged with tension. But The Comfort of Strangers is creepy that every turn of the page has the power to crawl under my skin.

In in unnamed city that might very well be Venice, Mary, a divorced woman with two children left behind at home, is on vacation with her lover for seven years, Colin. Although their relationship is deep, passionate, and intimate, they cease to be on speaking terms at the moment.

This was no longer a great passion. The pleasure was in its unhurried friendliness, the familiarity of its rituals and procedures, the secure, precision-fit of limbs and bodies, comfortable, like a cast returned to its mold. [17]

By chance the vacationing couple, somewhat naive and unguarded, becomes entangled with a strange couple: Caroline and Robert. The wife loves to have extreme pain inflicted on her and the husband is glad to inflict it. To their thrills but to others menace, they decide to make the new arrivals their victims of sadistic fetish.

The Comfort of Strangers is written with a minimalist approach: A goes to B where A meets C and some terrible things happen. End of the story with no explanation. The approach might give the story a touch of starkness but the cusp of violence and desire, which are redolent in the entire book, beg an explanation or at least a kind of commentary from the author. What’s McEwan’s intention? What’s the underlying white noise? One subtle display is the existence of contradictions beginning with the title of the book. For what Mary and Colin have experienced in their vacation is the least of what they would expect. There is not even a sense of joy, let alone comfort. Comfort is least of what I can derive from this novel.

127 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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30 Responses

  1. The first time I ever traveled anywhere, I went to Italy – by myself. The travel journal I had bought ahead of time advised of good travel reads. The Comfort of Strangers was suggested for those traveling to Venice. Needless to say, I was petrified of Venice by the time I got there, at night, lost, alone, and tired. In a trip of splendor and magical moments, I will never forget walking into a hotel lobby sobbing, trying to get directions in a labyrinth of dark corners. A kind young guy who couldn’t have been much older than me (22) got me water, told me not to cry, and took me to my hotel.

    NOT a good reading choice for my trip.

    • A good portion of the book actually describes how the couple, forgetfully leaving their map behind at the hotel, gets lost in the rabbit warren of Venice. That was how they met the person who has completely changed their lives. It was creepy.

  2. I’ve only read two books by this author, On Chesil Beach, which I loved, and Saturday, which was just Ok for me. I like tension, but only to a certain point. I just saw where he has a new book coming out called “Solar”. I’m interested.

  3. It’s minimalist, really? Because I read Atonement and got so frustrated with how McEwan laid out every single detail of every single action and thought anyone was having. I wonder if he just changed as a writer over time…

    • I was just thinking the same thing about Atonement when I approached the end of The Comfort of Strangers. What a huge shift of gear for him. I’ll continue to read him because he does write some great prose!

  4. I wasn’t a fan of this book. I didn’t connect with the characters and found that I was bored with most of the book. The ending was a bit shocking, but by that point I didn’t really care!

  5. This is one of the McEwan books that I haven’t read as yet (there are a fair few left) and I always think that with McEwan expect the unexpected because some of his books have similar themes and feels and then others go quite somewhere else. I am currently reading ‘Solar’ his latest which is again different from any of his work. Sorry this one didnt really do it for you, he seems to cause that effect quite a lot with his work.

  6. Yes, I remember it being a distinctly UNcomfortable read. But in fact the strangers are offering at least one half of our couple some “comfort” (at least, escape), aren’t they? (Without venturing into spoiler territory.) It’s been more than five years since I read this, so I could easily be mis-remembering, as I can barely remember a book that I read only five days ago…still, even the vague memories of this one manage to make me squirm.

    • The more I think about it, I am thinking maybe they were to pay the price for that moment of comfort–and they did rekindle their sexual passion for one another. Maybe McEwan wants to say there will be no regret if you die with the most intimate memory with the person you love?

  7. I really enjoy McEwan’s writing and this definitely sounds intense! I think I will have to add it to my TBR pile. Thanks for the review!

  8. I want to like McEwan quite a bit. I keep trying his books, various ones, sometimes more than once, hoping that I’ll be able to connect with them at a different time in my life, etc, but it never seems to happen.

    Got anything you recommend starting with? (Since it doesn’t sound like this is the one to do that with)

  9. […] [266] The Comfort of Strangers – Ian McEwan « A Guy's Moleskine … […]

  10. It seems like such a promising premise…too bad it doesn’t deliver. I think it would make a better movie than book in this case.

  11. I just have not had the best of luck with McEwan! The last book I read by him I really disliked (Amsterdam), and your review of this one suggests that I probably wouldn’t like it much either.

    • I thought Atonement was just okay because he revealed too much along the way and I already knew the ending. Then this one is leaving me wonder what happens to the people who did wrong. I think I’ll try Solar, the new one and see.

  12. […] [266] The Comfort of Strangers – Ian McEwan […]

  13. I love McEwan as a prose stylist but his horror is really, well, horrible! I mean that in the sense of disturbing. I actualy haven’t read this but I saw the movie and it sounds like hte movie is, um, pretty faithful to the book! I’ve avoided the book for precisely that reason and I think I’ll continue to avoid it. 🙂

    • Absolutely agree with you on that he is a great prose stylist. So observant and sharp. Now I want to see the film because I want to feel that creepiness.

  14. I just read Saturday and The Child in Time. Really really loved The Child in Time. Probably my second favorite McEwan, after Atonement. 🙂

  15. I’m glad you gave this book a go. I think it might have been my very first McEwan…read many years ago…and it really stuck with me. I’m a fan of the ambiguous ending myself, so that didn’t bother me. I just found the book terrifically atmospheric. I also read The Cement Garden (and I think there’s a movie) and I liked it a lot, too. I think McEwan is really talented…and versatile.

  16. Well, I expected a slightly more positive take on the book, but this was such a fun review. I am gonna have to read this as soon as possible.

  17. […] it as it seemed to me cliche- and the journal suggested The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan (I‘ll link to A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook if you want a thorough review). This book is about a couple vacationing in Venice, meeting another couple, and… let’s […]

  18. […] Austen: Emma Jane Austen Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens Ian McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers Ian McEwan John Steinbeck: East of Eden John Steinbeck British Mystery: Strong Poison Dorothy L. […]

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