At 25 years old, threatened by the news that her younger sister is engaged, Kitty marries the first man she can convince to propose, bacteriologist Walter Fane. Beautiful, shallow, selfish and not in love with her husband, it doesn't take Kitty long to start having an affair with the Assistant Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong, Charles Townsend. In fact, she convinces herself that she is in love with Charles and will somehow be allowed to ride off into the sunset with him. But it's not meant to be; Walter discovers her affair and Charles makes it quite clear that she was just a bit of fun. When Walter insists that she accompany him on a trip to a cholera stricken region of China as an act of revenge, the terrible circumstances around her force Kitty to examine and challenge herself for the first time in her life.
Oh man, I loved this book. I picked it up mainly for the interesting premise - a woman having to journey into a cholera epidemic because she had an affair, and I was thrilled to find out that this was backed up by wonderful writing and characterisation. The Painted Veil is a quiet, in-depth examination of human nature that doesn't shy away from the shallower or less attractive parts of what it means to be human, and I loved it for that. All of the characters are extremely real and mostly unlikeable, especially Kitty in the beginning of the novel, who is completely self-absorbed and child-like, unwilling to think about others at all. She knows her husband is desperately in love with her, but still thinks he should show more concern for her feelings when he finds out about her affair! Charles is almost as selfish as Kitty and even Walter is unappealing. I know some readers have problems with unlikeable characters, but I always admire an author for writing them, because life is fully of people like Kitty, and I like that Maugham didn't feel the need to varnish her in any way.
The main theme of the novel is Kitty's growth. As she spends time in the town stricken by cholera, eventually volunteering at a convent, she comes to question herself and her behaviour. She comes to see the bigger picture, to see that her life is small compared to the world, and that life only has the meaning that we ascribe to it. Kitty's journey is long and tough, and at no point does Maugham take the easy way out. There's no tearful acts of repentance or forgiveness here, only Kitty trying hard with the reality she finds herself in. Even at the end of the novel, nothing is straight-forward for her, and there is still a long way to go and some things that can never be fixed. Life in The Painted Veil is much like real life, complex and full of shades of grey. I loved that and think that Maugham had a very perceptive eye when it comes to human nature and relationships.
There's absolutely nothing I didn't like about The Painted Veil. It's in some ways a quiet little book but it's a powerful one too, one that made me think about my own life and choices. I'll definitely be reading more by Maugham in the future - any recommendations?
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1925
Score: 5 out of 5
The Classics Club: Book 24/72
My Classics Club list can be found here.