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The Comfort of Strangers ()

Granta Best British Novelists (1983)

That James M. Cain was a genius is never more evident than when you watch other authors try to make a character's participation in his own degradation and his eager embrace of certain doom seem plausible.  In Ian McEwan's Comfort of Strangers, an unhappy British couple, Colin and Mary, are in the moidst of a perfectly horrid vacation in Venice when they meet Robert, a cheesy seeming, imitation disco king, Eurotrash, local bar owner.  He takes them under his wing and tells them the brutal but very amusing story of growing up with a domineering father who favors him and several bitterly jealous sisters.  Later he takes them back to meet his rather ephemeral, somewhat crippled wife, who tells them, as they are leaving, that she is Robert's prisoner.

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.

Stories like this one, which require the reader to suspend disbelief as the actors venture further and further into the abyss are extremely hard to pull off, so it's not surprising that McEwan doesn't quite manage it.  First off, Colin and Mary are so unsympathetic that, as in The Sheltering Sky which it in some ways resembles, 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.

On the upside, the book offers further proof, as if any was needed, of the fundamental wisdom of the Time Zone Rule.  This holds that you should never, ever, under any circumstances, leave the Eastern Time Zone of the United States.


Grade: (C-)


Book-related and General Links:

Recommended books by Ian McEwan :
    -The Child in Time (1987)
    -The Innocent (1990)

    -FEATURED AUTHOR : Ian McEwan (NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPT : from Black Dogs
    -EXCERPT : from Amsterdam
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Enduring Love
    -AUTHOR PAGE :  IAN MCEWAN (1948-) (Guardian Unlimited)
    -Ian McEwan Home Page
    -English Literature - Ian McEwan (Newcastle School)
    -INTERVIEW : Rustic Calm Inspires McEwan Tale of Evil (WILLIAM GRIMES, November 18, 1992, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW : Ian McEwan remembers the late author Malcolm Bradbury  (THE ARTS REPORT - CBC Radio)
    -INTERVIEW : with Ian McEwan (Eric Schoeck, February 16th, 1998 , CAPITOLA BOOK CAFÉ)
    -INTERVIEW : The Salon Interview - Ian McEwan : Dwight Garner talks to Ian McEwan, the black magician of contemporary fiction, about mortality, gossip and his arresting new novel, 'Enduring Love.' (Dwight Garner [March 31, 1998], Salon)
    -INTERVIEW :  Ian McEwan Tries His Hand at Satire (Nicholas A. Basbanes, Lit Kit)
    -Bold Type : Ian McEwan (Interview & Excerpt)
    -BIBLIO : Select bibliography from Ian McEwan by Kiernan Ryan
    -ESSAY : Ian McEwan fools British shrinks The novelist puts one over on a few American critics, too. (Laura Miller [September 20, 1999], Salon)
    -PROFILE : Bicontinental Best-Seller ( Ann Geracimos, Insight)
    -ARCHIVES : "Ian McEwan" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : Ian McEwan (Salon)
    -ARCHIVES : "mcewan" (Slate)
    -ARCHIVES : "Ian McEwan" (booksonline)
    -ARCHIVES : "Ian McEwan" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "Ian McEwan" (Mag Portal)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : Amsterdam (Random House)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : Enduring Love (Random House)
    -REVIEW : of The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan (1981) (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE CHILD IN TIME. By Ian McEwan (1987)  (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE CHILD IN TIME. By Ian McEwan  (Rebecca Goldstein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Child in Time (Robert Beveridge, Pop Control)
    -REVIEW : of A Child In Time by Ian McEwan  (Leonie Kenyon)
    -REVIEW : of The Innocent by Ian McEwan (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Innocent (1990) (George Stade, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Black Dogs By Ian McEwan (1992)  (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Black Dogs By Ian McEwan (Bette Pesetsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam By Ian McEwan (William H. Pritchard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Jan 14, 1999 Gabriele Annan: Wages of Sin, NY Review of Books
       Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (Craig Seligman, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (David Profumo, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (Caroline Moore, , booksonline)
    -REVIEW : Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (David Wiegand, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam (Nicholas Lezard, Guardian Unlimited)
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam (Miki A. Mosman, City Pages)
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam (Good Reports)
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam (Charles Wyrick, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Amsterdam, by  Ian McEwan (James Diedrick, Authors Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of ENDURING LOVE By Ian McEwan (1998) (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of ENDURING LOVE By Ian McEwan (Sven Birkets, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Apr 9, 1998 Rosemary Dinnage: So Alert with Love, NY Review of Books
       Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
    -REVIEW : of Enduring Love (Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Enduring Love by Ian McEwan (Elizabeth Judd, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Enduring Love (Alice Truax, Slate)
    -REVIEW : of Enduring Love by Ian McEwan (Anthony Thwaite, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Enduring Love (Andrea C. Holland, Rain Taxi)
    -REVIEW : of Enduring Love (Cressida Connolly, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW : of Enduring Love (Tony Watkins, New Christian Herald)
    -REVIEW : of Enduring Love (Nicholas Nesson, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Enduring Love by Ian McEwan (Alix Madrigal, SF Chronicle)
    -AWARD : 'Amsterdam' by Ian McEwan Wins Booker Prize (SARAH LYALL, October 28, 1998, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : A Minor Key (Christopher Caldwell, Slate)
    -ESSAY : Making book on the Booker : Snide critics, betting mania, broadcasts of unphotogenic writers hacking away at duck -- the Booker Prize ceremony may not be the Oscars, but it's as British as all get-out. (SYLVIA  BROWNRIGG, Salon)
    -BOOK LIST : Fiction, 9 to 5 The author of "Black Dogs" and "Enduring Love" picks five favorite novels about work. (Ian McEwan [August 29, 1999] , Salon)
    -BOOK LIST : What children know : The editor of the Threepenny Review selects her five favorite novels about childhood.  (Wendy Lesser , Salon)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Ian McEwan (
    -INFO : Comfort of Strangers (1990) (
    -BUY IT : Comfort of Strangers (1990) VHS (

    -ESSAY : Critic's Notebook; Britain's Writers Embrace the Offbeat  (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, July 5, 1990, NY Times)