The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
Source: My Copy
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This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for over a year now. I don’t remember exactly why I grabbed it other than knowing that the author is someone well-known and a person that well-read readers read. I was not disappointed.
From the introduction to the very first page of the book, I was mesmerized by Maugham’s use of language to paint such a stoic, dramatic and engaging perspective of life. I didn’t really know what to expect when I started reading this book, I had absolutely no idea what it was about when I began reading.
The book begins with a short biography about Kitty, who is born and bred for a fine marriage. When that fails, her mother marries her off to the next available suitor, Mr. Walter Fane. Shortly after marriage, Kitty accompanies her husband to China. His work as a bacteriologist leads him away from their home in England. Once in China, Kitty is bored and unhappy with her marriage and engages in an affair with colonial officer Charles Townsend. Up until this point, I had Anna Karenina similarities running through my head and I found Kitty to be incredibly vapid and annoying. That is until Walter found out about the affair and gave Kitty two options. 1) Divorce (on the condition that she marry Charles in 2 weeks time) or 2) accompany him to cholera-ridden town of Mei-tan-fu. This marks the turning point for Kitty, when Charles undoubtedly lets her down. Whisked away to the dangerous city, Kitty befriends the French nuns at the local church and begins to work with them, helping the young children in the village.
In its simplest description, it’s a tale of redemption for Kitty. She commits a sin, denies the sin, accepts the sin and tries to atone for it. Watching the slow evolution of Kitty took me by surprise. I didn’t fully realize how much she had changed until the end. Even then, she still hadn’t changed that much, at least not when reintroduced to Charles Townsend towards the end of the book. The novel had its racist moments particularly in the descriptions of the Chinese citizens. The book was written in the 1924, not that it’s an excuse, but apparently it was accepted commentary back then. Maugham didn’t really shed anyone in a favorable light except maybe the Mother Superior. Kitty, Charles, Walter, everyone had their faults and insecurities. Even in her search for redemption, I still found Kitty slightly unlikable.
The book is very short, but covers so much ground. Racism, colonialism, adultery, isolation, filial strains, friendship, unhappiness, etc. The list goes on. Quite a few times I forgot that the book was written nearly 90 years ago, so many of the issues brought up in the book are contemporary issues of today. I think that’s what makes this book a classic and timeless in its message.
© 2015 by Nari of The Novel World. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @TheNovelWorld This was originally posted on The Novel World on 8/10/2015