If I had a top-five list of favorite books (Which I don’t. I can’t! It’s always changing!), The Painted Veil would undoubtedly go on it. I was originally introduced to the book by the movie adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts and immediately fell in love with it. It is beautiful, aesthetically and emotionally. And did you hear me say Edward Norton? So, when I recently found myself in a writing slump and looking for inspiration, I decided to revisit the story, this time in book form.
What struck me most about this book is that it is an insightful, honest, and touching story of a woman written by a man. Not that men aren’t capable of effectively portraying women, but still, it was a surprise to find out the “W” in W. Somerset Maugham stands for William rather than Winifred. And it certainly makes me like him a little more. After all, a male author writing a female protagonist in the 1920’s wasn’t exactly the norm. Although, it would be impossible to acknowledge this without recognizing that the book runs rampant with the sexism and racism of that era. Reading it made me grateful for how far we’ve come, and made me hopeful for the future.
The story begins in Hong Kong when the serious bacteriologist, Walter Fane, discovers his fickle socialite wife, Kitty, in bed with another man. Though their marriage has always been lopsided – Walter married for love, Kitty for social status – he reels from her betrayal and decides to transfer them both out of the city and into the heart of a massive cholera epidemic in a small town nearby. The story unravels delicately, following Kitty as she navigates the tragedy that surrounds her, her twisted marriage, and her own moral compass.
I suspected, since the book was written almost one hundred years ago, that it may be outdated in content or language, but I was absolutely wrong. It is beautifully composed and completely addicting. And the issues Maugham explores – the strangeness of love, the power of forgiveness, and the ability to change – are just as relevant today as they were a century ago and as they no doubt will be a century from now. After all, they don’t call it a classic for nothing.
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