“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 nowhither.”
The good thing about being in a reading group is that you pick up books that you would never normally consider, or have just never noticed before.
Of course I’d heard of W. Somerset Maugham, but if pushed I think I could only have named Of Human Bondage from his formidable back catalogue. However, the book group I’m in chose The Painted Veil as this month’s selection after two members had seen and admired the recent film adaptation. I had no particular feelings about picking it up, other than the fact that I’m essentially a big snob and wanted to avoid the film tie-in jacket, which I duly did.
I was very pleasantly surprised. The Painted Veil is the story of Kitty and Walter Fane, and the fall out of Kitty’s infidelity. Taking his influence from Dante, Maugham has Walter give Kitty an ultimatum: either they divorce and Kitty immediately marries her lover (who is in high office, married, and very keen to avoid a scandal) or she accompianies him to a remote, cholera-ridden area in China while he carries out his work as a bacteriologist. Swiftly following are revelations, spiritual awakenings, pregnancy, uncertainty, and a very fitting ending.
We see Kitty tranform from a shallow, society girl who cares for little other than herself and what the neighbours think into a woman who knows what she wants in life, and I found my admiration and general liking of Kitty as a character develop steadily throughout the book, until I was rooting for her with full force, which is surely a sign of a splendidly drawn character. Indeed, all the characters are strong in The Painted Veil, even characters that we only see from the corner of our eyes, like Kitty’s mother:
“Kitty had been brought up with the knowledge that she was going to be a beautiful woman and she more than suspected her mother’s ambition.”
On several occasions I found myself comparing Kitty’s story with Asylum by Patrick McGrath, which tells the story of another unfaithful woman and the subsequent fall out. I couldn’t help but see the two women’s stories as sort of parallels with each other. Well to do women, bored with their husbands, sink into the arms of dangerous, more alluring strangers. The two women end up in very different situations, and both stories are beguiling in their own ways.
The only real fault I could detect in this novel was the very occasional tendancy to get a bit bogged down in the details of certain moments. Fleeting epiphanies became semi-stream of consciousness rambles on the meaning of life that surely could have been edited a bit more. But for fans of strong characters, The Painted Veil is surely a winner.