Vintage International, 2004
0307277771Originally published 1925
My first book by Maugham, but definitely not my last. If someone would like to recommend a good one by him, I'd be more than grateful.
As a young man, the author took a trip to Italy, where he studied Italian with a tutor. Maugham began reading Dante's Il Purgatorio and came upon the story of one Pia de Tolomei of Siena. It seems that Pia's husband believed that Pia was involved with another man, so rather than risk her family's displeasure by murdering her, he decided to take her to his castle in Maremma. According to Maugham in the preface to Painted Veil, the husband figured that the "noxious vapors" of the place would do her in. He realized that it would make a great story, and later, when in China, he realized that it would be the perfect setting, voilá -- The Painted Veil comes into being. Yet, the finished product actually turns out to be much more character rather than story driven.
Set in the 1920s, the main character of this novel is Kitty Fane, whose socially-ambitious mother wanted her to marry into a prominent family. Kitty is not interested in marriage until her younger sister becomes engaged to a member of the baronetcy. It is at this point that Walter Fane, a physician and bacteriologist appears and professes his deep love for Kitty and asks for her hand. Kitty finds it expedient that Walter has to leave immediately for China where he is doing research, because if she marries him she will not have to take part in her sister's wedding and have everyone talking about her. Kitty does not love Walter, but she marries him anyway. Off to Hong Kong they go, and as the story opens, Kitty is having an affair with a married British diplomat, having become quickly bored with her husband. Walter discovers her infidelity and presents her with a choice that ends up with Kitty following him to Mei-tan-fu, a rural Chinese region where a cholera epidemic rages through the population. Walter has taken the place of the local physician and also spends much of time researching the disease, while Kitty is left alone to ponder why he has really brought her there.
While the story belongs mostly to Kitty and how she is able to dig deep and discover certain truths about herself and life in general, the more interesting character, imho, is Walter, who exemplifies that old adage that still waters run deep. Underneath his mild and taciturn appearance, a great deal of passion flows through this gentle man's veins, staying largely unrecognized until it leads him to force Kitty into following him into the heart of a cholera epidemic. But here lies the heart of the story: human beings are often misguided when their actions stem from their emotional natures, sometimes causing them to make serious mistakes. In that sense, both Walter and Kitty are two sides of the same coin.
This was a very good read, certainly recommendable to readers across different genres. Romance readers will find something here, as will chick-lit connoisseurs, and it's a good book of literary fiction. I do want to say something about the 2006 film adaptation: it veers from the book quite a bit, especially at the end, so if you are considering watching it my advice would be to read the novel first to see where Maugham was really going with this story.