The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

October 3, 2009

painted veil Plot summary (with spoilers): The novel begins with Kitty Fane engaging in an adulterous tryst with the older Charles Townsend, an assistant colonial secretary in Hong Kong where Kitty and her husband Walter have been living since they were married a few years ago. Kitty senses that Walter has come home early for some reason. The handle on her bedroom door turns, but no one comes in. Kitty is sure that Walter knows of the affair; Charles’ hat was left downstairs and couldn’t have been missed. Later, Kitty asks the servant who it was that came earlier, and confirms that it was indeed Walter.

Kitty then tries to decide what she will do when Walter confronts her. To be sure, she never loved Walter, a boring, stiff, plain-looking bacteriologist. She only agreed to marry him so as to do the deed before her younger sister Doris. Walter loves her, but Kitty finds this to be an annoyance more than anything else. She decides that if Walter confronts her she will demand a divorce so she can be with Charles.

When Walter finally says something to Kitty, it’s not at all what she expects. He tells her that he is going to mainland China, right into the heart of a cholera epidemic in order to lend medical assistance. He will give Kitty a divorce only if she can extract a promise from Charles that he will marry her soon thereafter. If not, Kitty will have no choice but to come with Walter on his journey.

Kitty is angered by Walter’s demands, but is sure that Charles will acquiesce. But divorce is the furthest thing from his mind, and he rattles off a bunch of excuses as to why he simply cannot comply. Kitty finally realizes what a fool she has been, and meekly, though resentfully, accompanies Walter.

While on the mainland, Kitty slowly but surely turns into a less self-absorbed person. She spends time with some nuns helping at an orphanage, comes to see Walter in a bit of a different light, and even learns that she is pregnant. Tragedy strikes when Walter succumbs to cholera, forcing Kitty to move back to England (after a brief sojourn in Hong Kong where she inexplicably hooks up with Charles again). Once back home, she realizes how badly she has treated her father, and ends up making amends with him prior to accompanying him to a new post in the Bahamas.

Liked:

  • Kitty’s character arc was very apparent — and very believable. I hate reading books where the characters barely change at all, or if they do, they change for the worse. It was nice to see a character learn from her mistakes (even if it was a bit late).
  • Kitty was an interesting character. Her flaws made her seem human, and it was easy to relate to her, even if you’ve never been in that particular situation (staying with your husband after the discovery of an adulterous relationship).

Disliked:

  • Neither Walter nor Charles was very developed, so it was hard to get a feel for what those two were like. It would have been nice to see a little more of Walter to figure out why Kitty despised him so much, especially since he seemed like a pretty stand-up guy.
  • For a book that takes place in such an exotic location, there really weren’t that many memorable descriptions of either China or Hong Kong. I’m usually not all that big on descriptions, but the lack of them here was very noticeable.

Rating:

Overall, I thought The Painted Veil was a compelling character study. Kitty Fane goes through a discernible arc from selfish to selfless, and the slow transformation was worth the wait. I give this novel 4 stars out of 5.

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