Colin and Mary, unmarried lovers on a lackluster vacation in Venice, meet a eery and forceful local man and his meek, crippled wife, and find themselves drawn into their dark world of erotic violence. Colin and Mary have been together for years, and it's beginning to show. They are not married, though Mary has two children from a previous marriage. Mary is a failed actress and Colin, though angelically handsome, gave up on a singing career for some unknown reason.
We first meet them in turgid silence in their Venice hotel room. They are distant and uncommunicative with one another. They know each other so well, their thoughts so clear and their responses so familiar, that it has crushed any spontaneity in their once-joyfully passionate relationship. They spend a long time getting ready to explore the city, then derail all that with a routine, but lengthy, lovemaking session. When they finally get out of the hotel, it's late at night and all the restaurants are closed.
Starving, Mary remembers a hot dog stand outside a bar on the other side of the town. They can't quite remember exactly where it was, but they are so hungry they decide to set off anyway in the general direction of the hot dog stand. Naturally, they get lost. Without a map, disoriented by hunger and the winding canals and alleyways, they seem to be walking in circles. At last, a local Italian man comes across them in a dark alley. He is short, hairy, and significantly more muscled than Colin. With a vaguely aggressive insistence, he grabs both Colin and Mary's arms and drags them to his bar nearby. They drink and eat bar snacks while the Italian man, whose name is Robert, tells them a long and unsettling story about his powerful, misogynistic father and his older sisters who, to his mind, teased and unmanned him at every opportunity.
Colin fell asleep during the story, and with dawn coming, him and Mary say goodbye to Robert, and wander out of the bar. They only make it down to one of the piers, and fall asleep together on a coil of fisherman's rope. They wake up later, dehydrated and even more disoriented than before. They try to find a restaurant that will give them water, but keep running into cultural barriers that prevent them from having this simple request honored.
Even though they only left his bar a few hours before, Robert runs into them again, this time in St. Mark's Square. He insists on taking them back to his house. Colin is uneasy with the idea, but they are both too weak to fight it, and Robert guides them with a firm hand all the way to his house.
They wake up hours later naked in one of the bedrooms of Robert's house, which appears to be a wing of a decaying palace. Confused, but rested, they walk out and meet Robert's wife, Caroline, waiting for them just off the main room. She is the daughter of an ex-Canadian ambassador; she is frail, milk-white, and appears to have something seriously wrong with the bones of her back, which prevents her from walking without obvious pain. She reveals to Mary that she can no longer leave the house, since her back prevents her from using the stairs. Mary realizes she is a prisoner.
Colin and Mary leave, after making perfunctory "promises" to return. After this brush with the unsettling intensity of Robert and Caroline, Colin and Mary return to their hotel with a renewed attachment toward one another. They spend the next few days making love, talking, and rekindling their romance.
In the benevolent magnanimity that follows this, they both realize that they can't just leave Caroline in that house with Robert. So they go over to the house one day, hoping to find out some answers and perhaps get Caroline out of there.
As soon as they arrive, though, Robert takes Colin away on a walk, aggressively holding Colin's hand and pretending to onlookers that they are lovers. Meanwhile, Mary presses Caroline on her relationship to Robert and how she broke her back. Caroline promises to tell her everything, if she'll only have a cup of tea first. Over tea, Caroline explains that Robert punches and hurts her during sex, and it was during one of these sessions, while telling her that he was going to murder her, that the bones in her back fractured. Mary is horrified. But Caroline explains that this is love.
Mary begins to feel woozy and numb. Colin returns with Robert. He's alarmed at Mary's state, but Robert and Caroline assure him that she's fine, and Mary can't speak well enough to tell him otherwise.
While Mary is paralyzed but still awake, Robert and Caroline murder Colin in front of her and have sex on top of his dying body. When Mary awakes, Robert and Caroline are gone, and Colin's body is cold. She tells her story to the police. They listen, but don't seem alarmed. They even explain that this kind of thing is common in Italy.
Best part of story, including ending:
The eery atmosphere of rising intensity sucks you in, and McEwan's skill at ratcheting up this tension overcomes his otherwise long-winded descriptive passages.
Best scene in story:
The final scene where a paralyzed Mary is forced to watch, and unable to stop, Robert murder Colin in a twisted sex game is so intense that I couldn't read it sitting down. I was literally pacing the room with the book in my hands.
Opinion about the main character:
I like Mary's independence and wry detachment, but this at times can get to be a little off-putting, especially when it seems to rub against the more engaged feelings McEwan is asking us, the reader, to feel for Mary and her situation.