Thursday, January 11, 2007

'The Painted Veil' by W. Somerset Maugham

ISBN: 1400034213
Format: Paperback, 256pp
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Price: $13.95

“… the painted veil which those who live call Life.”

I saw a preview last week for Edward Norton's new movie, The Painted Veil. The movie looks fantastic, a sweeping romantic period piece. a type that I just love. Then the next day at a favorite bookstore sitting there on the table in front of me was a copy of The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham, first published in 1925.

Maugham (1874-1965) was an English playwright, novelist and short story writer who traveled the globe using the exotic locals as backdrops to his work. This was the 2004 reprint, the cover a beautiful painting of a woman holding a bird cage casually in one hand. There is something so captivating about her face, especially the look in her eyes. So I bought the book.

The Painted Veil is not only a story of Kitty and her ill-fated marriage to bacteriologist Walter Fane, but of her own personal growth as a human being. Kitty was raised by her mother to do one thing in life, marry young and well. When her younger sister announces her own engagement Kitty, who has already passed up several offers of marriage, accepts Walter Fane’s proposal for her own very selfish reasons.

Right from the start you know that Kitty does not love Walter, barely even likes him, and views him as a way of escape from the thought of being an old maid, as well as her mother's bitterness. Kitty is selfish and often unkind to the man so madly in love with her. She pities Walter and often despises him because of his love for her.

But still Kitty moves from England to the British colony of Hong Kong, where she soaks up the attention that is given to a new bride. But when the shine starts to wear off and Kitty discovers that being the wife of a bacteriologist isn’t as glamorous as she had hoped she finds other things to occupy her time.

When Walter learns of Kitty’s adulterous affair with Charles Townsend, an official in the Hong Kong colony, he gives her two choices. Kitty can go to Charlie and ask him to divorce his wife to marry her or she can go with Walter into the middle of a cholera epidemic.

In the middle of this epidemic, Kitty finally starts to realize what a good man Walter is. She still does not love him but can see for the perhaps the first time how lucky she is to have someone like him. Kitty begins to view her self differently as well. But Walter, once so madly in love, can not forgive Kitty her sin.

With beautiful China as a backdrop to this story of growth, The Painted Veil is a classic. It is beautifully written, the writing compact but amazingly detailed. Kitty is finely drawn and fully realized, Walter much more distant but still captivating.

The ending, while being satisfying, is the not ending that I hoped for. Desperately I wanted Kitty to find something in Walter to love; I wanted to see their relationship healed. But in the end it is her relationship with her father that is mended and the narrowness of her soul expanded.

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