The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

Colin wheeled around on her, incredulous, exasperated. “That wasn’t our first day,” he said loudly. “Now you’re completely confused It was seeing the queue that made us decide to go to the beach, and we didn’t go there till the third day.” Colin had stopped to say this, but Mary kept on walking. He caught up with her in skipping steps.
“It might have been the third day,” she was saying as though to herself, “but this is where we were.” She pointed at a doorway several yards ahead and, as if summoned, a squat figure stepped out of the dark into a pool of street light and stood blocking their path.”
I have only known McEwan’s work through Atonement, Saturday, and On Chesil Beach. In that order. With each successive read, however, I was less impressed. Still, I opened The Comfort of Strangers for the Venice in February Challenge; largely, perhaps, due to the cover on the Vintage edition.

This little book, only 127 pages, was written in 1981. Long before McEwan’s fame was firmly established. I find very little in it reminiscent of anything he’s written before, but quite a lot of this novel is on a parallel with Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now.
An unmarried couple, Colin and Mary to be precise, are vacationing in Venice. They seem rather malcontent with each other, the whole relationship rather humdrum, until one evening a stranger steps out of a darkened doorway and beckons to them. After a lurid evening spent together, Colin and Mary are eager to escape his presence.
They leave with what seemed to be a lucky chance, and find themselves insatiable for one another. All they can do is sleep together, over and over, and then? They go back to the stranger’s home with disastrous results.
The Comfort of Strangers is actually anything but comfort. It is a shocking psychological novel which even now I can’t say that I liked. It isn’t the sort of novel one likes. It’s the sort of novel which nestles into one’s mind and stirs up questions. Questions which might have different answers depending on the reader.
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41 thoughts on “The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan”

  1. Absolutely! It would make for a terrific discussion because there's no clear cut answer as to why they return to the stranger's house, from which they longed to escape when they first entered it.

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  2. A story: the first time I ever flew was from Houston to Italy. I had bought this great travel journal that suggested reading based on the place you were going. I was going to Venice; the journal suggested this book.

    Then I arrived in Venice after dark and got so so lost. It was petrifying.

    Yeah – this book? Strange. Interesting but strange. It's on my outside reading list for my college freshman. They inevitably give me their best WTH look when they finish it.

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  3. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on this book. I really like McEwan's work. I find that each of his novels is different and I like that. I've read Amsterdam****, Black Dogs****, The Cement Garden****+, and Enduring Love****+, as well as the three that you've read. Saturday**** is my favourite, not Atonement**** like most people. I'm a sucker for a story with a doctor as protagonist I guess. On Chesil Beach***+ I could have skipped. The Comfort of Strangers**** was a well-written, if creepy story. As I said, totally different from his other work.

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  4. Ack. I read this a while back and haven't reviewed it yet but I felt much the same way you did. The movie is bone-chilling; I didn't know what to expect from the book. I thought I would never read the book after my reaction to the film but one of my friends, who is a huge McEwan booster, urged me to read it and I'm not really sorry but I'm not really glad, either! I guess I'm glad that I don't have to wonder about it anymore!

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  5. I thought he captured Venice extremely well in this book but other than that I was revolted. I'm not easily shocked but found it disgusting. I've only read Atonement so far but wanted to read more, only this was the second I chose and that stopped me.
    Seeing Sandra's comment encourages me to pick another one.

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  6. I think there's hardly anything more terrifying than being lost in a foreign city, and Venice? With its dark, twisting alleys and tunnel like streets? I'd be petrified, too! I was never officially lost there, but I remember times when I certainly didn't know where I was. Fortunately, they were in the daylight. Fortunately, I had the sense not to follow some beckoning stranger to his house!

    I can just imagine your college freshmen's puzzlement. It is bizarre why they would return there…begging the question, “What makes us do what we do?”

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  7. I remember reading Atonement with almost violent emotion. To this day, if I saw Briony I'd slap her. On Chesil Beach seemed to the book which would never end, even though it isn't long it was so tiresome! The one thing interesting about McEwan is that he's very versatile. While sexual themes seem pervasive in the novels I've read, they are in a different context each time.

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  8. I can just imagine the chilling effects of the film! Did it remind you of du Maurier's Don't Look Now? They were very similar to me, and yet somehow I really, really liked du Maurier's.

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  9. I requested this from my library for Venice in February, but am a little nervous now. They didn't have a print copy, so I'll be receiving the audio version. We'll see…

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  10. It was disgusting, that ending. I wish we could have had the psychological draw without the blood. I also wish I had another of McEwan's novels to strongly suggest, however I end up feeling that I don't need to read anything more by him.

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  11. Well, JoAnn, one of the good things is it's short. But, you have to be prepared for a shocking ending. Of course, if you don't like it you can put it down, and that's the lovely thing about a book. One of them, anyway. We don't have to read what we don't choose to. In the end, it did make me think, and puzzle over the character's motives.

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  12. I didn't know that McEwan had written this kind of book. I have to admit that I want to read it now, if only to find out what will happen…

    I'm starting my first Venice in Feb book over the next few days; Elle Newmark's The Book of Unholy Mischief. As I loved the Sandalwood Tree, I have high hopes.

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  13. Glad I picqued your curiousity! 😉

    I've not heard of Elle Newmark, so thanks for that introduction in your comment. I'll look her hope, and look for your review of The Book of Unholy Mischief. Now that I think of it, I think Linda P. might have reiewed that…

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  14. The Comfort of Strangers was my 3rd McEwan book and I remember the shock at the end, but it is still a well written book and I enjoyed getting beyond my comfort zone to finish it; Amsterdam is great too, but my favorite is Enduring Love.

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  15. I share your feeling about Atonement then On Chesil Beach, in that order. Thanks for this review… and from Diane's comment, I now know about its movie adaptation which I've found out from imdb that it's by some very talented people… directed by Paul Schrader, and Natasha Richardson is in it… two of my favorite film personalities.

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  16. Ian McEwan's books never comfort but disturbs. That's what he is good at. I read Atonement and On Chesil Beach and can't wait to read Saturday and Enduring Love.

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  17. I was beyond my comfort zone, too, especially upon turning the last page. I've not read Amsterdam, nor Enduring Love…maybe I will read the later some day as it's your favorite.

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  18. I would like to see this as a movie; it's always good to see the film of an interesting book, although usually I find the book to be better. (I guess that's why I'm a reader, eh? 😉

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  19. I think you summed up McEwan perfectly when you said his “books never comfort but disturb.” Of course, I do want an author to cause me to think about what he's saying, so for that, I'd give McEwan an A+.

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  20. The atmosphere and the “not liking” you described here remind me of my experience with Joyce Carol Oates's novella, Beasts. It's one of my favorite books because it did rile me up and disturb me to a great extent. I appreciate an author who can disturb me since it's not easy to do.

    I've enjoyed Atonement and On Chesil Beach, and I have Amsterdam on my TBR. This is one I'd be interested to try to see how my reaction unfolds.

    Thanks, Bellezza!

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  21. Wow! Just reading your review of this book has me intrigued and eager to get my hands on a copy of this one. And the thing is that you didn't even say you liked it, but the way you described how it gets nestled in your mind and stirs up questions – well, that sold me on it! Great post, Bellezza!

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  22. I fell the same way about McEwan, about feeling less impressed, but my order was Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Enduring Love and Solar (which I didn't even finish). And from what I've been reading, we're not alone in this. I think he just set the bar too high with Atonement.

    After the disastrous experience with Solar I'm a bit afraid of giving him another try, especially because I know he's fond of shocking plots (e.g. Black Dogs, The Cement Garden).

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  23. Well, I loved Atonement, enjoyed Saturday and was disappointed with Enduring Love and Amsterdam. I will not be picking this one up anytime soon. I just read a hilarious review for it on Amazon. It's chock-full of spoilers, but since you've read the book, you might get a chuckle out of the review. Go here. Scroll up to the top once you get to the page.

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  24. Another Joyce Carol Oates book which left me upset was We Are The Mulvaneys…not an easy read by any means, but a though provoking one.

    I liked Atonement, too, as much as one can like that kind of book. Again, very thought provoking with unlikeable (to me) characters. That Briony…

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  25. I've just finished it & have come straight over to your blog to read your review & the comments. Feel I need to read Miss Pettigrew lives for the day to wash away my thoughts & restore faith in strangers.

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  26. It does leave you with rather an icky feeling, doesn't it. Perhaps we'd be better refreshed by opening our Bibles! I can't say that this novel did anything for my hope in people (or McEwan's writing).

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  27. Begin with Saturday and then Atonement. I think many would agree that Atonement is one of his best novels, but Saturday is very good and is better read first, in my opinion.

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