Although I strongly disliked The Painted Veil upon finishing it, after discussing it via email with a fellow blogger (thanks again, Amanda!) and attending my book club discussion, my feelings have been moderated. I still don’t consider it a satisfying novel and I probably won’t be actively seeking out more Maugham, but it did have an interesting perspective on a particular woman’s coming to an understanding of life, so to speak, in the 1920s. (And many people loved it, so I’m apparently the odd one out here in disliking it!)
The title comes from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Lift Not the Painted Veil Which Those Who Live.” For Kitty Fane, lifting the veil of life certainly does reveal a “gloomy scene.” Kitty was a beautiful but spoiled and flirtatious girl, raised in turn-of-the-century London to flirt and marry well. Marrying the dull Walter Fane in desperation (so she would not still be single at her younger sister’s wedding) did nothing to temper her passion for self-indulgence. As the novel opens in Hong Kong, Kitty and her lover Charles have been discovered in the midst of their affair. What follows is her coming to terms with life as it really is, not as she had been raised to see it (i.e., as a setting for parties, flirtations, and entertainment).
At the beginning of the novel, I thought it was going to be about adultery. Quickly, I realized that this novel was about so much more. At times, it is about reconciliation and forgiveness. It is about understanding other people. Even more, it is about understanding one’s self and one’s place in the world.
Do not be mistaken in to thinking that The Painted Veil is a love story: the realistic bits of life are not quite as pleasant as we may prefer; there is no romance in betraying loved ones and facing the consequences. The Painted Veil does show Kitty’s change to some extent. I struggled to appreciate it, for the book ends without Kitty’s self-realization being complete. Yet, in the end Kitty hates herself, while in the beginning she thought highly of herself. Since I never liked her to begin with, it seemed rather dreary to me. I consistently wanted to smack her.
As for Maugham’s writing, I was wholly unimpressed. At points I thought the dialogue was well done, but the description of Kitty’s thoughts and feelings were tedious; I thought of the maxim to “show and not tell.” Truly, Maugham’s forte was the plot, and I unfortunately happened to dislike this plot. Maybe someday I’ll try Maugham again when I find a plot that intrigues me. Unfortunately, The Painted Veil was not a promising start to Maugham for me.
I’ve had numerous people indicate they like this book, however, so don’t take my word for it. It is a fast read, and if you are intrigued, it may be a favorite for you. (And no, watching the movie does not count, as there are significant changes in that. For the record, I did not like that either.)