Book Review: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I parcipate in a book club with the Boston Chapter of the William & Mary Alumni Association and this book was our January selection.

Published in 1925, the novel tells the story of Kitty Fane. A high-society English woman, she rebuffs her mother’s attempts to marry her off until her younger sister is engaged. She decides to marry Walter Fane, a shy baceteriologist who offers her the opportunity to live in China. For Kitty this is a loveless marriage and once in Hong Kong she is quickly embroiled with an affair with the handsome vice-consul Charlie Townsend. The novel begins with Walter discovering Kitty and Charlie in the midst of their fling (a distinctly anonymous passage since the first several pages consist of “he said” and “she said” before Kitty and Charlie are finally identified by name).

Walter, who is deeply passionate underneath his taciturn demeanor, gives Kitty two options: file for divorce or accompany him on a mission to a cholera-plagued community in the Chinese interior. Walter also correctly surmises that the rakish Townsend has no interest in risking his career to divorcing his wife to marry Kitty. Disillusioned by Townsend, Kitty agrees to travel with Walter. With a saintly devotion, Walter commits himself to caring for the sick and dying while Kitty becomes intrigued with a convent of missionary sisters from France. She begins volunteering with the nuns and her experiences there change her profoundly.

For a conversion story, it is good at avoiding cliches. Kitty grows to respect and admire Walter but never falls in love with him. And Walter, even on his deathbed, cannot forgive Kitty. Despite the lessons learned, Kitty also backslides. Upon returning to Hong Kong she is graciously welcomed and hosted by Townsend’s wife Dorothy. Despite her loathing of Townsend and now personal relationship with his wife, she sleeps with him again before finally rebuking him once and for all.The book concludes with Kitty returning to England and a somewhat rushed and clumsy reconciliation with her father.

Overall, I’d say this is an okay book, worth reading but not highly reccomended. It’s a very familiar story but I don’t think Maugham’s telling illuminates it other than avoiding cliches, nor does he have a particularly appealing writing style. For a three-hundred page book, this a quick read written in almost a journalistic prose. The Chinese in the story are treated in a disturbingly indifferent manner which I guess is appropriate to the time but still unsettling to read.

A film adaptation of The Painted Veil starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton is playing in theaters now and received mixed reviews.