W. Somerset Maugham is an author I quite enjoy, so I’ve been collecting his books as I’ve come across them. The Painted Veil is the fifth book I’ve read from my TBR Pile Challenge list.
About the Book:
Kitty may not be clever or deep, but she is beautiful and well bred. In her prime, she was the apple of her mother’s eye and virtually guaranteed a marvelous marriage — only she waited too long to choose a husband from amongst her many suitors. Drifting farther and farther from prime marriageable age and desperate to land herself a husband, Kitty settles on Walter Fane, a bacteriologist on leave from his post in Hong Kong. He is dreadfully dull, but he idolizes her, and she blithely assumes that will be enough.
It isn’t, of course. Once the couple is back in Hong Kong, Kitty takes up with the charming Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary and a married man. She believes she loves Charlie, that he is equally devoted to her and would gladly leave his wife to be with her.
Then Walter discovers her affair, and Kitty’s pretty little world comes crashing down around her. She slowly comes to understand that she must choose between withering away in despair and growing toward a light she is only just discovering.
Though I’ve very much enjoyed all three of Maugham’s works I’ve read so far (The Razor’s Edge and The Trembling of a Leaf being the other two), I think The Painted Veil is my favorite. It feels more immediate somehow, less like a story keenly observed and more like one fully lived.
I’d expected a love story, probably because of the photograph on the cover of the movie edition I have. It’s not at all. It’s a story about a shallow woman who, faced with hardship, learns how to wake up and step into her life.
Maugham is always adept at creating great characters, but Kitty is a masterpiece. Not only is she fully formed when the novel starts — you feel you know her from the first page — she also undergoes quite a transformation as it moves forward. By the end, you’d hardly recognize her as the same woman if you hadn’t witnessed her journey.
I kept waiting for Kitty to do something frustratingly predictable. There were so many moments in which the book could have taken a turn toward the trite, when Kitty could have chosen a life that might have been easier for Maugham to write but that would have been wrong for her. I should have had more faith in Maugham. Kitty was true to herself, as a person and as a character, from start to finish, and her growth felt satisfyingly real. Maugham carefully articulated just enough of her thoughts and feelings to make the progression seem genuine, even without using a first-person point of view. And though I didn’t know until the final pages where Kitty would end up, when I found out I could imagine nothing better for her.
There are many nameless, faceless characters thronging the pages of The Painted Veil, but aside from Kitty, there aren’t many who figure prominently. Of course there are Walter Fane and Charlie Townsend, foils in many ways but not to the point of seeming contrived. There is a friend Kitty makes in her travels, and a pair of nuns as well. Kitty’s family — mother, father, and sister — are distant echoes, for the most part. Though well drawn, these characters pale in comparison with Kitty. She herself looms large, as she should.
The Painted Veil is a surprisingly quick read. It’s under 250 pages and not particularly dense. Maugham’s writing is very readable. For all that, it seems somehow to be ahead of its time. First published in 1924, it almost reads like a contemporary novel. In fact, you could probably change the places and events to the present day and the story would still work. Maugham has seized on something universal and given it to Kitty, in her time and place, to develop. She plays the part admirably.
The Verdict: Excellent
If it isn’t obvious yet, I liked The Painted Veil quite a bit. It’s certainly made me want to continue leisurely reading my way through Maugham’s titles. I would definitely recommend this one to readers who are new to Maugham as well as those who already know and love him.
What books have you read that rely heavily on just a main character or two? Do they do so successfully?