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The Painted Veil Paperback – November 14, 2006
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
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“The modern writer who has influenced me the most.” – George Orwell
From the Inside Flap
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.
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What struck me (again!) was that it was originally published in 1929. It is a timeless read, and I would recommend it to anyone who desires a well written novel with British witticisms and interesting characters. There are no surprises, as such, but the story line is so keen that one wants to continue. I found the vocabulary delightful and there are sacred moments which are transformational for the lead characters. I found it to be a bittersweet love story which left me wanting more, but sated all the same.
The entire book is beautifully and tightly written, using what I would categorize as “classical” language, but in a style that is simple and easy to understand. Maugham did a fantastic job telling the story of how the main character Kitty Fane’s adulterous affair and the aftermath of it causes her to re-assess and make changes in her life that she never thought possible. In all honesty, from the beginning of the story to the very end, I did not like Kitty one bit. I felt she was silly and foolish (and vain, immature, self-centered, etc.) and even when she “changes for the better” later on, I still couldn’t bring myself to like her. No doubt that Kitty grew a lot after her experiences in China, but I actually still saw a bit of the same characteristics in her, albeit to a much lesser degree. As I was reading, my feelings towards Kitty went from despising her in the beginning to pitying her later on in the story (the pity comes from acknowledgement of the fact that, in a sense, part of her plight truly WAS due to societal conventions and how she was raised).
Since I read this book for one of my book clubs, I don’t intend to write a long review on it, as I prefer to save more in-depth analysis for when we discuss the book. However, for anyone who may be considering whether to read this book or not, my response is a wholehearted YES! The amount of ground that Maugham was able to cover – love, betrayal, redemption, society norms and conventions, culture, marriage and relationships, religion, gender roles and stereotypes, class structure, etc. – in such a short book (my Kindle version was less than 200 pages) is not only astounding but also extremely rare. Don’t let the “classic” label fool you into thinking this will be a difficult book to get through because it definitely won’t be – this book is an easy read, yet still invokes much insight into numerous topics that are still relevant today.
Lastly, I know there was a movie adaptation of this book that came out around 10 years ago, but I actually don’t plan on watching it, at least not any time soon. I’m very particular when it comes to book to movie/tv series adaptations, especially ones that turn out to be very different from the book due to changes made by the producers/directors. I don’t want my memory of the book to be ruined if I end up disliking the movie’s interpretation of the story/characters.
(Read in January 2017)
Maugham is a first rate author. The book is beautifully written—simple, yet elegant.
In W. Somerset Maugham’s simple story “The Painted Vail” he does just this. Set against the backdrop of colonial Hong Kong, the tale is of a colonial housewife of a lower level civil servant, who settled for a man she really didn’t love out of fear of missing her moment and ended up embarking upon a lackluster tryst which ends in folly.
There are no great morals to take from this story, no epic moments of significance, no grand gestures or powerful monologues that seek to assure the reader that there is an underlying idea that the author is trying to convey. It’s just a story, simple and honest – and for that it is great.
Of course Maugham wrote in a different time. I suspect that his Victorian era “classical” style would not be well received in a time when the public hankers for long car chases and grand gun battles against the backdrop of world-altering geo-political struggles – and plenty of flesh in between. He was able to simply tell the stories of normal people and their unremarkable interactions. I envy him for this – I would like to write the literary fiction that Maugham was able to get away with, and not have to worry about all the tools and tricks and hooks upon which we are taught modern literature depends. But alas we are products of our time – as was Maugham.
To be sure, Maugham is one of England’s greatest writers; one who has distinguished himself up against so many who will remain forever anonymous. Then, as now, he was treasured for the simplicity of his stories that overflowed with humanity. He is missed; and for the critical reader, he never disappoints.