History: The book was published in 1981.
Plot: Mary and Colin are an English couple on holiday in Venice, although the name of the city is never made explicit. Mary is divorced with two children; Colin is her angelically handsome lover who has been with her for seven years. Although they do not usually live together, their relationship is deep, passionate and intimate, however there is distance and miscommunication as well.
One evening, Out walking one evening, looking for somewhere to eat the couple get lost amongst the canals and are befriended by a forceful native named Robert, a cheesy seeming, imitation disco king, Eurotrash, local bar owner. He forcefully befriends them and tells them a great deal about his early life in which he was brought up both to fear his father and consider himself the heir to his father's power in the otherwise all-female household. This account of Robert's upbringing suggests that his sadism results from his youthful experience of male violence and female subservience. McEwan also introduces a theme of surveillance at this point. Robert has been photographing the couple, but especially Colin, since they arrived in the city. His meeting with them is no coincidence but an outcome of his observation of their movements. Later, he insists on bringing them to his house where they meet his wife Caroline an invalid woman who, it transpires, never leaves the house.. Although the guests are at first shown great hospitality, it becomes clear that the hosts have a peculiar relationship with each other For no apparent reason, this encounter rekindles the passion between Colin and Mary, though they studiously avoid discussing the episode and seek to avoid any subsequent meetings with Robert. Inevitably, they do eventually see him again and the results are predictably ugly.
On a subsequent visit, it becomes apparent that Robert and Caroline's relationship is based on violence: on his brutality and her masochistic acceptance of it. Caroline has nearly been killed in their violent sex and the couple have come to realise that to satisfy Robert's desires but keep Caroline alive they will need another victim. Venice is the apparent setting of The Comfort of Strangers but remains unnamed in the novel and so becomes a symbolic landscape upon which the book's concerns are projected. It is a city of conspicuous beauty consumed by tourists such as Colin and Mary; it is also free from traffic and other signs of modern living. Both these characteristics suggest an older world, or a deeper one in the case of human desires.
Review: First off, Colin and Mary are so unsympathetic that, we eagerly await the tourists getting their just desserts. More troubling, Robert, despite his one captivating story, is so obviously shady that Colin and Mary seem totally stupid for getting involved with him. An author can get away with making his characters naive, but at the point where the reader is yelling at them and calling them idiots for following along with the novel's plot, that author has lost control of his own narrative.
Opening Line: “Each afternoon, when the whole city beyond the green shutters of their hotel windows began to stir, Colin and Mary were woken by the methodical chipping of steel tools against the iron barges which moored by the hotel café pontoon.”
Closing Line: “He set down his briefcase, adjusted his starched white shirt cus, and courteously, with the faintest of bows, offered to walk her back to the hotel.”
Quotes: "For reasons they could no longer define clearly, Colin and Mary were not on speaking terms."
"She loved him, though not at that particular moment."
Rating: Worth reading.