The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
Published by Vintage International on February 10, 2004 (originally published April 1925)
Genre(s): fiction, classics, historical fiction
Format & Length: paperback, 246
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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.
I’ve had The Painted Veil on my shelves for several years now but hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet. In fact, I think I expected it to not be especially interesting and wonder why I even purchased it in the first place. But when I was browsing my collection recently, I decided to give it a try as I’ve been wanting to read more classics. And it wound up exceeding my expectations.
“He did not speak because he had nothing to say. But if nobody spoke unless he had something to say, Kitty reflected, with a smile, the human race would very soon lose the use of speech.”
Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, this character driven story centers around Kitty, who is beautiful and shallow and only agreed to marry Walter so as not to be upstaged by her younger sister’s engagement. While the first chapter is quite an intriguing opener, the book then takes its time with set up and flashbacks to create the necessary backstory, slowing the pace down significantly. The pacing picks up in the second half, though, and Kitty’s development throughout was wonderful right up until the end, making up some of the slower portions for me.
What I really didn’t expect was for this to be as readable as it was. Some parts could have used more editing in my mind but given that it was written nearly a century ago, I had anticipated that most of the book would feel that way. But some of the writing flowed particularly well to make the moral of the story really hit home. And this is certainly a morality tale that deals with themes of love, family, honor, duty and more in a way that packed some punch.
Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that I enjoyed The Painted Veil as much as I did. I’m not sure if I’ll ever read it again, but the story will definitely stay with me for a while.