Review: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

20 Books of Summer 2020: Book 7

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham surprised me by how modern it felt until I happened upon a word or phrase that’s not used anymore, or now means something different. I don’t think, for example, that Maugham was trying to be a jerk when he used “idiot” to describe a child with hydrocephaly. It might be unfair, but unless I’m told otherwise, I expect that old books will have a slow, meandering style.

I didn’t expect these opening lines:

She gave a startled cry.
“What’s the matter,” he asked.
Notwithstanding the darkness of the shuttered room he saw her face on a sudden distraught with terror.
“Someone just tried the door.”
“Well, perhaps it was the amah or one of the boys.”
“They never come at this time. They know I always sleep after tiffin.”
“Who else could it be?”
“Walter,” she whispered, her lips trembling.

Of course it was Walter, Kitty’s husband. In the aftermath of her affair, Kitty is forced to choose between divorcing Walter or following him into the midst of a cholera epidemic. He believes he can be helpful as a bacteriologist and physician, but he also wants to punish both Kitty and himself. Though Kitty’s character shows flashes of modern feminism, her initial impressions of Chinese people are racist. She improves, but her initial commentary dates the book. She and Walter live in Mei-tan-fu while he studies the disease and she volunteers at a nearby convent.

The characters are vibrant and easily imagined. Maybe it’s because I had the movie in mind, but it was easy to visualize the conversations between principal characters. Maugham uses the right details about tone and facial expression so that conversation flows, but is nuanced. Details are well-chosen and placed; a number of descriptions are funny, almost satirical. The narrative sticks to Kitty’s perspective, so while we see changes and shifts in her viewpoint, it’s hard to know what’s going on in Walter’s mind. When I added this book to my summer list, I did so because it’s one of the shorter books on my TBR and I thought it might be a quick read, but it was a strange book to read during quarantine. Cholera is different from COVID-19, but I would have read these lines differently just a year ago:

She began to regain her spirits; she felt better and stronger. It had seemed to her that she could do nothing now but weep; but to her surprise, and not a little to her confusion, she caught herself laughing at this and that. It began to seem quite natural to live in the midst of a terrible epidemic. She knew that people were dying to the right and left of her, but she ceased very much to think of it. (146)

Ultimately, it’s not about cholera so much as the people around it. Kitty and Walter use the presence of disease to poke at each other:

“You oughtn’t eat that. The boy’s crazy to serve it.”
“Why not?”asked Kitty, looking at him full in the face.
“It’s always dangerous, it’s madness now. You’ll kill yourself.”
“I thought that was the idea,” said Kitty.
She began to eat it coolly. She was seized with she knew not what spirit of bravado. She watched Walter with mocking eyes. She thought that he grew a trifle pale, but when the salad was handed to him he helped himself. The cook, finding they did not refuse it, sent them some in every day and every day, courting death, they ate it. It was grotesque to take such a risk. Kitty, in terror of the disease, took it with the feeling not only that she was thus maliciously avenging herself on Walter, but that she was flouting her own desperate fears. (105)

It’s worth mentioning that the book and the movie have different endings. If you’re a fan of the movie, you might be surprised or even disappointed, but what works well in a book doesn’t always translate to film. So much of the book’s character development is felt but left unsaid. In a movie, there’s a limit on how long the lead actors can stare into space or at each other without using cheesy voiceovers. The changes made for the screen adaptation make sense, even if the book feels a little colder by comparison.

Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0) I devoured this book. Kitty is so petty and unlikeable at the beginning, but I cheered her on at the end. It’s a well-paced character study that’s lively and even funny at times.

Image credit: Amazon

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  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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