Top critical review
hence, the time zone rule
on November 4, 2001
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-