The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It had been a long time since I read one of the classics. When I saw ‘The Painted Veil’ on sale at Audible.com, I thought it would be a nice change of pace. I wasn’t wrong. This book proved to be far better than I expected.
‘The Painted Veil’ is set in England and China, taking place in the 1920’s. It is a story of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption. I definitely wasn’t prepared for some of the twists and turns that this story took, but I enjoyed every minute.
Kitty Fane moved to Hong Kong with her husband, Walter. An incredibly intelligent man, Walter is also socially awkward. He loves Kitty, but is rather unapproachable and aloof. Eventually, Walter grew on me, but he isn’t the type of “warm-fuzzy” character that you bond with immediately. From the start, it is made very clear that he is head-over-heels in love with his wife.
Likewise, it is immediately evident that Kitty does not return the sentiment. Kitty is beautiful, vain and shallower than a kiddie pool. While Walter married for love, she makes not ifs, ands, or buts about the fact that she did not. It is clear that she married Walter solely so that she would not be one-upped by her younger sister’s upcoming nuptials. In fact, Kitty seems to loathe Walter…at least, initially.
So, it was no big surprise that Kitty spent her days in the arms of the charming, and also married, Charles Townsend, while Walter was busy at work. No doubt, the dumb twit was just the most recent in what was bound to be a long line of extramarital conquests for Charles. Stupid Kitty believed that he was as in love with her as she was with him. Poor fool.
Unlike his wife, Walter has no illusions. He knew that Kitty didn’t love him the way he loved her, but he wanted her so badly that he was willing to marry her anyway. He may have known that she didn’t love him, but he did expect for her to be faithful.
When he discovers her adultery, he gives Kitty an option. He will grant her a divorce, if Charles will agree in writing to divorce his wife and marry Kitty immediately thereafter. Or, Kitty can accompany Walter into rural China where he has accepted a job assisting with the medical management of the cholera epidemic. Of course, Walter already knows exactly how this will work out. Kitty seems to be the only one surprised by Charles’ duplicity.
I have to say that Walter had a special place in my heart. I love stories with darker themes and am drawn to anti-heroes. There was something so sinister and calculating about Walter that really drew me to him. Kitty was right to be afraid of her husband, even as she knew that he loved her. Walter was kind of a scary guy.
Arriving in the small village, it is immediately apparent that Kitty is being punished for her transgressions. Walter keeps her at a distance and is cold, at best. It becomes clear to Kitty that Walter is seeking revenge, using cholera to commit a passive murder/suicide. It was sick. It was twisted. It was goddamn brilliant!
The more time she spent in the village, the more Kitty came to see the error of her ways. For the first time, Kitty grew to appreciate her husband and even admire him. Though she never really fell in love with him, she finally felt shame and remorse for her actions.
As much as I disliked Kitty at the onset of this book, she grew on me. I came to see her as an imperfect human, a product of her privileged upbringing and societal expectations. Similarly, I came to see some of Walter’s flaws. He wasn’t entirely a victim as I believed, early on.
I can’t say that there is one “moral of the story” that really stands out to me with the book. There were many. This book was a beautiful, albeit heartbreaking, account of the human experience.
Although this isn’t my usual type of story, I enjoyed it immensely. There were plenty of twists and turns along the way that I didn’t see coming. Early on, I thought I had it all worked out in my head, but I was sooo wrong. This story did not pan out the way I had envisioned, but it was strangely fitting for this couple.
Overall, I thought that this was a wonderful book. It isn’t a particularly happy or uplifting read, but it was great in and of it’s own accord. This is one that will definitely hang with me for a while. I highly recommend it.