The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

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Chapter 1 Summary

Colin and Mary are a couple traveling in Venice, and their days have an almost ritualistic similarity. In the mornings, they busy themselves with sightseeing and tourist attractions. This is followed by a late-afternoon nap (which only once included sex) after which they leisurely bathe and dress themselves. They then spend an hour on the veranda relaxing, taking in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood, and often smoking a joint together. In the evenings, they explore the city in search of new, often out-of-the-way restaurants. Their command of the city’s geography is limited and they are further hampered by the inadequacies of the maps they bought. It is quite common for them to get lost in their travels, not taking in dinner until 9:00 or later. As their stay goes on, the two become more and more dependent upon the maid’s service, and their initial tidiness soon gives way to the slovenliness of people who know that someone else is picking up after them.

On this particular day, the couple finds themselves in the midst of a cool silence—some earlier disagreement has left them not speaking to each other. Colin rises from his afternoon repose and showers first, hearing a man across the way in his own shower singing opera with great abandon. When Mary eventually arises, trying to shake off busy dreams in which she is constantly beleaguered by her children, she keeps her distance and offers only chilly responses to Colin. This evening, Colin smokes his marijuana alone on the veranda and notices a mildly comical situation play out in which an elderly man attempts to get a good picture of his wife without the interference of a table of diners nearby. Once the man has removed the diners from view, he finds his wife has wandered away from her pose and angrily attempts to reposition her. While this scene plays out, Mary refuses the pot, and stays inside doing yoga to keep her distance. When she finally arrives on the porch, Colin recounts the story of the photograph in an exaggerated way in a purposeful attempt to draw her out. She does not initially respond, but soon the couple is holding hands again. They apologize to each other and head indoors for some familiar, but not exceedingly passionate, lovemaking. When they have re-dressed, they find themselves well behind their usual schedule. Despite this, they head out into the evening resolved to maintain their daily routine.

Chapter 2 Summary

The early part of their journey proves unsuccessful for expected reasons. Colin and Mary forget to bring their maps with them, and quickly find themselves lost. The relative lack of signage and the sameness of the streets only furthers their confusion. Colin seems more perturbed than the unflappable Mary, who stops at a department store window. On display is a bed scene with an incredibly ornate upholstered headboard, which includes a built-in radio, telephone and refrigerator. At another building, Mary is taken with posters of feminist propaganda, and she stops to see if her Italian is good enough to read them. While she is particularly fond of a flyer calling for the castration of rapists, Colin grows impatient knowing that their chances of finding a restaurant still open are dwindling.

After venturing a little further, they find locations vaguely familiar from previous wanderings, but are no closer to finding a restaurant. Colin is slightly optimistic that they might be able to find a hot dog stand they had found in the area during a previous excursion, but still cannot get his bearings. With limited street lighting, the city has grown very dark. Suddenly, a man steps out of the shadow and asks who they are and where they are going. Initially, Colin and Mary are reluctant to offer any information about themselves, but the man insists he knows of an establishment that is still open, and warns them that even the hot dog stand has closed for the night. He grabs each of them by an arm and begins to guide them, despite their protests and attempts to...

(The entire section is 4,382 words.)