Reflections: The Comfort of Strangers

Ian McEwan's short novel The Comfort of Strangers reads like an exercise in suspense-creation. The book opens with a liberally minded couple on holiday drowning in the lazy pleasures of taking one another for granted while disengaging from all social interactions except for with one another. They stay in bed napping and making love until driven from the sheets by hunger. Then, they walk together, dine together, and return to the room together, following the form of the perfect romantic getaway. Their relationship rests on the foundations that most modern readers will find familiar: they share ideas, bury disagreements behind the assumption of agreement, and take pleasure in discussing the strength of their bond, especially comparing it to that of other couples they know. The seemingly pointless length of the descriptions of their days foreshadows an impending end to them.

Wandering the streets of an unnamed foreign city (presumably Venice, or some fictional approximation of it), they meet a local couple whose perverse attachment to one another provides a carnival mirror reflection of their love, exaggerating the grotesque consequences of the social isolation that is normal to holidays but dangerous as an everyday practice. Drawn out of their isolation and into this couple's orbit by the rules of polite society, they make themselves vulnerable to a blood-chilling attack on their relationship and on their assumption that immoderate love is a boon.

McEwan allows no escape from the story's horror, and no redemption from its persistent and lingering misanthropy. He paints a portrait of human nature at its worst, and at its most self-indulgent, and asks the reader to decide on which she can pin her sympathy.


The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

A beautifully written review for what sounds like a interesting novel. My thanks to you for sharing. Oh, and have you ever thought of submitting one of your reviews to say the New Yorker or N+1?
Warmest regards,

Kim said...

Just doing some hopping today and I like what I see here -- and spotlighted you with an award. TTYL

Mrs. B. said...

I remember reading this book. It was compelling but disturbing too.

Mille Feuille said...

I completely agree: I found it horrifying. While reading my wiser self kept telling me to put it down before finishing. It has, in some respects, turned me off McEwan. I think he is technically savvy, but rather grim (and plays the sexual violence key a little too often).