The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

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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.)

Reviewed on May 21, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I hope your book club went well! I really like Maugham’s writing and think he does far more showing than telling, but he is very simple in his prose and I can see how other people might disagree with me. Still, for such a short book, there was so much stuffed in there which is what I really loved about it.
    .-= Amanda´s last post on blog ..Little Children, by Tom Perrotta =-.

    • Amanda, yeah, at times he reminded me of Hemingway with his short crisp sentences. I did appreciate the dialog a lot! And yes, lots of issues in it, which made it good for discussion Wednesday. Thanks again for sharing your ideas. I appreciate the book more — and maybe some day I will give Maugham a try again! I know you love him.

    • Nymeth, when I say it seems everyone else loves it, I mean it. You might love it too! It’s a quick read, so even if you don’t it won’t take long to give it a try.

  • I’m sorry to hear this one didn’t work for you – I read my first Maugham this year and really liked it (The Razor’s Edge). I thought the writing was really mesmerizing, and I also found it to be a really thoughtful novel, even if some of it didn’t feel quite as ground breaking now as it may have at the time of its original publication. This was probably the Maugham I wanted to read next, so I really am saddened to hear it didn’t do much for you!
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..Mushroom & Pea Risotto with Pan-Seared Halibut =-.

    • Steph, THE RAZOR’S EDGE is one on my list of “I should still try it” books. But I’m thinking Maugham is not going to be a favorite author of mine. I hope you enjoy this one when you read it! As I say, I’m in the minority in the blogosphere. (Although I will say out of the four at my book club, only one liked it. I guess our book club is all minority.)

  • I’ve read four Maugham books and THE RAZOR’S EDGE is my favorite. I liked THE PAINTED VEIL somewhat. I read it primarily because I loved the movie and had fond memories of reading THE RAZOR’S EDGE and OF HUMAN BONDAGE over twenty years ago. To me, Maugham’s strength is dialogue.

  • I’ve only read Maugham’s Razor’s Edge but liked it in spite of its faults. I think Maugham is a good, workman-like writer but I wouldn’t say his prose is amazing. Painted Veil has similar themes to Razor’s Edge except the latter focuses on a man’s spiritual journey.
    .-= Stefanie´s last post on blog ..Who You Gonna Call? =-.

  • I’ve seen the movie but didn’t realize it was based on a book. Since I really enjoyed the movie, I’ll probably try to pick up the book. Sorry that you didn’t like it, either! I had a similar feeling when I was reading Gone With the Wind–that was another book that EVERYONE loves, but I disliked it so much because Scarlett’s behavior was so against her own best interest that I just wanted to shake some sense into her–kind of like reading a 1000-page train wreck in slow motion. Anyway, thanks for the review!
    .-= Angela´s last post on blog ..The Devil’s Tickets: A Night of Bridge, a Fatal Hand, and a New American Age =-.

  • ummm i was wondering, what impact has the era (1920s) on the novel? How would have this have been different (if a similar story were even possible) in modern times?
    And do you know any poems that relates to this?

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