The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan.
In a maze-like city that might or might not be Venice, lapsed lovers Mary and Colin are sleeping in separate beds and giving each other the big freeze.
The simplest of tasks seems herculean. A listless evening stroll ends not with the hoped-for candle-lit plate of pasta but hopelessly lost. Clearly, our holiday goers need a Moses.
Enter Robert. He leads our erring Englanders out from their Mapquest-less fog and settles them in a basement bar. Drinks are procured; tales of Robert’s domineering, Abrahamic father, cowed and powerless mother, and the boy Robert’s reluctant schooling in his father’s sadistic ways are told.
The following afternoon, parched and hung over and still searching (this time for their hotel), Robert reappears and offers our safaristas sanctuary at his and his wife Caroline’s nearby apartment. The pilgrims refresh themselves with naps, then stay for dinner.
Ensconced once again at their hotel, Mary and Colin embark on a days’ long feast of love-making. They congratulate themselves on their love-making genius and revel in their love’s uniqueness and snuggle into a bubble of love.
They keep their thoughts carefully turned from Caroline and Robert. Over the course of their shared evening, both Mary and Colin became convinced that Robert abuses Caroline and that Caroline is trapped. Robert and Caroline are the un-magic words sure to extinguish Mary and Colin’s love as surely as water drowns a flame.
On the fourth day, our couple repair to the beach. Mary swims; Colin misinterprets from shore. He sees the rising and falling of Mary’s arm as a sign of distress. Barely possessing the skill to swim 100 yards, he is in altruism’s grip and swims out 200 to save her. He reaches her, gasping and choking and realizing too late that Mary did not require his life-saving services.
Later that day, their usual navigational misfirings mislead them once more to Robert and Caroline’s. Caroline waves from the balcony. She wants them to come up. Our heroes break their unspoken agreement about having nothing further to do with Robert and Caroline’s sordid dyad of willing victim and beloved torturer and ascend.
They are masters of their compasses at last: Caroline is begging to be rescued. What could possibly go wrong?