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The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I have been coveting a copy of The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham ever since I saw the gorgeous 2006 film adaptation starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. For the first half of the book I felt the film was very faithful to the novel, but towards the end a major difference arises which makes each little like the other.

The Painted Veil centres on the character Kitty Fane, a shallow socialite who marries Walter Fane, not because she loves him but simply to get away from her mother and be married before her younger sister. The fact that he’s a bacteriologist stationed in Hong Kong seems an added bonus to her for the extra distance it will put between herself and her family. Unsatisfied with her marriage to Walter, who is as devoted to her as a dog but so painfully reserved that she knows next to nothing about him, Kitty starts an affair with the charismatic Charles Townsend. When Walter discovers their relationship he is crushed and furious. He exacts a bizarre and horrible vengeance on Kitty by forcing her to accompany him to his new posting in a remote region of China which is in the grips of a cholera epidemic. Kitty fears he has done this in the hope that she will die, and becomes bitterly lonely and isolated until, subtly, something within her begins to change.

At times I found Maugham’s tone towards women and the Chinese a tad chauvinistic and confronting, but once I got past that I found it to be a beautiful novel. Bleak, but beautiful. As Kitty throws herself into charity work in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, she works on her inner self and attains a greater understanding of the world around her and how she has impacted on others. I enjoyed reading about her going through this process of self discovery and betterment.

I’m going to discuss the different endings in the book and the film now, so if you haven’t read or watched either skip past this bit to my favourite passages. In the film as Kitty begins to find an inner strength she and Walter fall deeply in love with each other, making his horrible death very poignant and tragic. In the book Kitty begins to have sympathy for but never falls in love with Walter, she acknowledges this a number of times leading up to and after his death. This gives the book a much bleaker tone. But I just can’t decide which ending I preferred, both left me in tears and both worked well. I think having seen and fallen in love with the film first it has a more special place in my heart, but reading The Painted Veil was an intense and moving experience.

My Favourite Passages:

“I don’t understand anything. Life is so strange. I feel like some one who’s lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea. It makes me a little breathless, and yet it fills me with elation. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I’m beginning to feel a new courage. I feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown.”

“She was accustomed to his habit of meeting with silence a statement which you would naturally expect to evoke an exclamation, but never had it seemed to her more devastating. He said nothing; he made no gesture; no movement on his face nor change of expression in his dark eyes indicated that he had heard. She felt suddenly inclined to cry. If a man loved his wife and his wife loved him, at such a moment they were drawn together by a poignant emotion. The silence was intolerable and she broke it.”

“Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whisky and some in love. It is all the same Way and it leads to nowhither.”

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