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The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil (1933)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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Kitty Garstin, a spoiled young debutante living in 1920′s England, makes the choice to marry Walter Fane so that she is not left without a husband. Walter is smitten with Kitty, in fact, loves her fiercely. But Walter’s work as a bacteriologist and his quiet demeanor leave Kitty indifferent. The couple move to Hong Kong where within weeks, Kitty meets the much older and charming Charlie Townsend. The fact that both Kitty and Charlie are married, does not dampen their attraction to each other…and very quickly they begin a passionate affair. When Walter discovers the affair, he confronts Kitty and threatens to divorce her (something which would leave Kitty disgraced) unless she agrees to travel with him to the cholera-ridden town of Mei-tan-fu.

British author W. Somerset Maugham published this novel in 1925, but it was first serialized in Cosmopolitan beginning in November 1924. The novel was adapted for the screen in 1937, 1954 and 2006.

Maugham attempted to demonstrate personal growth in the character of Kitty – from a frivolous and shallow young woman to someone with an awakened conscience and a more open heart. I’m not quite sure that was accomplished. Kitty is not a terribly likeable character and I turned the final page wondering how much she had truly changed. Although life in Mei-tan-fu forces her to grow up, she remained a character who was rather self-centered.

I read this book for a book club, and the group was split as to whether or not Kitty ends up being a changed person. You will have to read the book yourself to decide!

Maugham captures the flavor of Hong Kong in the mid-1920s. As with many classic works, the women in the book are not presented in a very positive way. Kitty is flighty and looks to men to solve all her problems and Doris Townsend seems to be just fine with her husband cavorting with younger women as long as he never leaves her. The only female character in the book who I felt portrayed inner strength, was the Mother Superior at the convent.

The Painted Veil gives readers a look at the prejudices of the time – Kitty sees the Chinese children as “hardly human” and is shocked when she learns that one of the gentleman in the settlement lives with a Manchu woman.

Somerset Maugham achieved great popular success, ultimately penning numerous plays and novels, along with several short stories. He is perhaps best known for his novel Of Human Bondage (first published in 1915).

Despite my criticisms of the characters in The Painted Veil, I did appreciate this novel as a piece of classic literature. It is a short work (less than 250 pages) which I read in just a few days. Readers who enjoy classic books will want to give this one a try. ( )
1 vote writestuff | Jul 30, 2014 |
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.

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.

The Painted Veil 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.

Full review is posted on Erin Reads. ( )
1 vote erelsi183 | Jun 20, 2014 |
Kitty is a young woman who got married for all the wrong reasons and doesn’t love her husband, Walter. She rushed to marry after realizing her younger sister might beat her down the aisle. Walter is a nice but boring man who takes his wife to Hong Kong in the 1920s where he works for his work as a bacteriologist. She quickly falls in love with a dashing married man named Charlie and they embark on an affair. When her husband discovers the relationship he gives Kitty two options: she can get divorced and married Charlie or she can travel with him into the midst of cholera outbreak in mainland China.

That whirlwind of events happens in the very beginning of the book. The vapid Kitty reminds me so much of Daisy Buchanan. She shares her selfishness and disenchantment with life. But while Daisy never really changes, Kitty’s transformation throughout the novel provides a poignant picture. Spending time with the nuns leads her to re-evaluate her life, but it doesn’t change who she is as a person. The story is realistic in that sense. She becomes more aware of who she is and what wrong with the choices she has made, but that doesn’t make her a better person overnight.

While living in the mainland Kitty and Walter meet Waddington, a British officer who has been living there for quite a while. His objective point of view and direct personality give the audience a unique view of the estranged couple. Waddington talks to Kitty about both Walter and Charles, opening her eyes to the real nature of both men.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the exploration of love. It refuses to follow logic, which is both its beauty and its tragedy. We so often fall in love with the person who is the worst for us and we can’t make ourselves love someone if we feel nothing for them. We see this over and over again through Kitty, Walter and even Waddington. Love defies common sense, which often has tragic results.

At first I was disappointed when Kitty returns to Hong Kong and seems to fall into her old patterns, but by the end I thought that whole section was beautifully handled. We needed to see Kitty back in that environment to see whether or not Walter’s death and her work with the French nuns changed her permanently or not. Her conversation at the very end of the novel with her father makes it clear that she realized how spoiled she was and that she wants to change, she also wants something better for her own child. She’s no longer content to live a sheltered existence in a big city being treated as someone’s property.

BOTTOM LINE: This story was just gorgeous. Kitty’s transformation and her slowly changing view of the world were beautifully conveyed. I know I’ll return to this one.

“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.”

“One cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one's soul.”

“She could not admit but that he had remarkable qualities, sometimes she thought that there was even in him a strange and unattractive greatness; it was curious then that she could not love him, but loved still a man whose worthlessness was now so clear to her.” ( )
1 vote bookworm12 | May 6, 2014 |
Somerset Maugham is a master at exposing the best and the worst of humankind. In The Painted Veil he eloquently tells the story of a hasty marriage and its downward spiral as the husband and wife get to know the real people that they married. The ones that attraction and wishful thinking hide so well. ( )
  vdunn | Apr 30, 2014 |
I'm really torn about the rating for this one. It's a 3.5 for me. It's a good story. In this case, it's unfortunate that I'd already seen a film version before reading the book. The film version I saw (Garbo, of course!), as is often the case, doesn't include all of the nuance of the book. Still, I wish I'd had no real idea of what happens before reading it.

Kitty ends the book in a burst of what almost sounds like feminism. Her emotional journey, the journey of her soul, is the most affecting part of the novel.

Though I realize the racism in the book may have been common to the time, place, class, etc., I still found it distracting.

I think I've set the bar pretty high for Maugham, which probably also affects my evaluation of this book. ( )
  tercat | Nov 19, 2013 |
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"...the painted veil which those who live call Life."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307277771, Paperback)

Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of the beautiful but love-starved Kitty Fane. When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of the British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love.

The Painted Veil is a beautifully written affirmation of the human capacity to grow, to change, and to forgive.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:57:10 -0400)

This is the story of Kitty Fane, the adulterous wife of a bacteriologist stationed in Hong Kong. When her husband discovers her deception, he exacts a terrible vengeance: Kitty must accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic in China.

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