Book Review: The Comfort of Strangers




I became interested in this book by watching the movie of the same name, starring Christopher Walken and Natasha Richardson.  The film is beautifully shot in Venice and is worth watching.

The book hardly qualifies as a novel at one hundred pages in paperback, which I recon to be about 35,000 words, but in the world of overly large novels, that’s probably a plus.

The story takes place in Venice around 1980, I suppose, as the book was published in 1981. A divorced woman (Mary) and her lover (Colin) visit Venice for vacation. The book opens with them pissed at each other for some unknown reason. Mary has kids and misses them, while Colin has no kids, and shows no real interest in hers.  We get the impression that the relationship has gone stale.

No age is given for Colin or Mary, but with Mary being divorced with two children, one ten, the other about eight, that would put her at at least thirty, but probably older. We have way to gauge Colin’s age. He is always described in feminine terms, such as “beautiful,” “like and angel,” with his body being hairless, and the hair on his head being long and curly. He is physically weak. The name “Colin” means “pup” or “whelp.” It’s fair to conclude that Colin is substantially younger than Mary. In fact, Robert, the antagonist, takes much more of a shine to Colin, essentially ignoring Mary.

For some reason (and in spite of not sharing the same bed) these two cannot get themselves out of their hotel in time to get dinner, and they wander the streets (apparently without a map) trying to find (of all things) a hotdog stand they remember passing. They become lost and ran into Robert, a man who lives in Venice. He befriends them, and they start on their journey, the outcome of which I will not spoil. Suffice it to say that it is a dark story with a surprising twist at the end.

I like the story. One difficulty I had with the book, however, is that it gives no meaningful description of Venice. To the extent it gives any description, they are vague and frankly unpleasant. They show that either the author or the characters have no appreciation for Venice, and don’t know anything about it. No place names are given, and some of the information is simply wrong. For example, the author refers to the bell tower at St. Mark’s square as the clock tower. I had the impression that McKewan had been in Venice long enough to get a taste of it, but not long enough to know it, or to care to give actual names of places. This may have been a literary trick to keep the focus away from Venice, and maybe I’m biased because I live in Venice, but I think if you are going to set a story here, you might as well spend a little time giving meaningful descriptions of some of the places. As it is, the story could have taken place anywhere.

Though only a hundred pages long, some interesting themes are dealt with. A May-September relationship, male domination of women, women resisting and then acquiescing in their role as subservient, perhaps as a way to gain power over their situation.  Sexual violence. The love-hate relationship between men and women. Even the relative helplessness of a traveler who must rely on others for help. Maybe a failure or refusal to take control of your own life, or any situation.

For example, it’s clear that Mary and Colin are having difficulty figuring out where their relationship is, or what it should be. Neither is willing to make a hard decision. In the pivotal scene, Mary and Colin are at Robert’s house. While Mary is out of the room with Caroline (Robert’s wife) Robert strikes Colin in the gut with his fist, sending him to the floor gasping for air. What does Colin do? Nothing. I might have called it a night and decided that this man was possibly not the right sort of friend for me. But he does nothing, in keeping with the theme of women (in this case the effeminate Colin) being subject to the brutality of men and, to a large extent, giving in to it voluntarily. Perhaps this was a test by Robert to see whether Colin really was a man. A man would have fought back. Or he would have left, not accepting the treatment. But Colin just took it.

While at Robert’s house Mary notices photographs, which she later realized are pictures of Colin taken after they arrived in Venice. In spite of being aware of that, and in spite of Colin being struck by Robert, the two return to visit Robert and Caroline. This I found strange. It seems more logical to avoid Robert. Maybe just go on back to England. But they go back. Why? The answer lies perhaps in the man-as-abuser theme. The abused often cannot free themselves mentally or emotionally from their abuser, although they have the power. Caroline is such a person. She is horribly abused, yet thinks she likes it or deserves it. Very typical victim mentality. Needless to say, Caroline would be better off without Robert, and Colin and Mary would have done well to stay away from Robert.

A compelling and interesting story, and quick read. I recommend it.



The Movie: