Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

Title: The Painted Veil
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Genre: Classics / Literature
First published: 1925

Rating: 6 out of 10

The Painted Veil is the story of Kitty, a beautiful young woman who believes herself to be, without question, the most important person on earth. Her quiet, introvert husband Walter is a mystery to her, and the two of them share a very distant, weak bond. After Walter discovers that his wife is having an affair, he abruptly decides to move to a disease infested village in order to do medical work for the cholera outbreak there. Wrenched from the man that she believes she loves and forced to adjust to a dangerous new culture, Kitty is at a loss. She befriends a group of nuns and helps them with their efforts aiding the sick.

I loved the simplistic tone of this book, which was natural and beautiful, never forced. However, I often got the odd feeling that this made me almost forget that this was all happening in China, instead of England. The feel of the book was very British, which isn't implausible, since Kitty is British and is living in a British area. It just seemed a bit off putting that I pictured the characters in Europe rather than Asia.
I liked the tone of the book, but the lack of a strong setting was a negative point. Of course, Kitty's world changes drastically when she moves from England to China. Her culture shock is mentioned, but Maugham simply tells us this, instead of giving examples of Chinese culture. The rich, exotic setting of Asia as seen by a spoiled, sheltered European girl was one that I was really looking forward to reading in this book, but it simply didn't happen. It would be very easy to have forgotten that any part of this book was ever set in China at all.

But perhaps this was done because the setting was not what was most important about this tale. I would say that the main focus was the character building, which admittedly was quite good.
Our main character, Kitty Fane, is a deplorable, silly, frivolous girl when the story begins, but the reader gradually sees her grow into a wiser, less self centered woman. The author certainly succeeded in making the reader dislike her first character, but not be able to help themselves begin to warn toward her in the second half of the book.
Kitty's husband, Walter, was my favorite character. Perhaps it was because he was so mysterious, or perhaps it was because I kept searching for little clues as to what he was feeling through-out the book, and drawing up possible assumptions. It was quite fun.
Walter is completely unlike Kitty, and this fact combined with his shyness and quiet, reserved nature has created a void between them. Their marriage is shakily built on unspoken thoughts, silence, and puzzlement as Kitty wonders what on earth Walter is thinking. He isn't an easy character to figure out, but I really liked him. He struck me as a sensitive, caring man rather than the stoic tough guy.

Maugham is a meticulous, thoughtful writer, with little details scattered through the story. I loved picking them out and wondering what they meant.
For example, the scene where Waddington introduces Kitty to his Chinese wife. Unnecessary details about her being an exiled princess are thrown in, and while these bits of knowledge nor the scene itself have anything to do with the rest of the book, I think it was added in to show a contrast between Kitty and Walter. Waddington and his lover are worlds apart in differences, and yet they still understand and love each other, which is a stark contrast to Kitty's own marriage.

Surprisingly, I noticed a slight gothic aspect to this story, light enough to just barely be noticed. Occasionally, a character would make an interesting comment or small paragraph of a speech about death, such as on pages 111 or 172. (I wrote down the page numbers while reading, but then returned the book to the library before I wrote this review.) A beautiful line that I remember was life being described as “a little smoke lost in the air.”

Though I cannot really say that a plot not going the way you'd prefer is a fault, the outcome of this book was a disappointment to me. (If you don't want spoilers, you can skip the next paragraph.)

I wanted Kitty to fall in love with Walter so very badly, and although she does develop a friendship and appreciation for him later on, a romance between them never happens. Also, in the end, Kitty gives in and once again sleeps with Charlie Townsend, the man who preyed upon her innocence and naivety prior to her leaving town. I couldn't believe it! After how much stronger and wiser Kitty had become, why would she go back to her old foolishness again? I felt a bit cheated by this, as if I had been misled into thinking that Kitty knew better now. Not only does she give in to Charlie, she does so while his wife is hospitably letting her stay with them, out of the goodness of her heart. It seems that Kitty's changes in character were not permanent.