Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Painted Veil

The local library near my house has an extensive collection, and I occasionally make a trip down a random fiction aisle and choose a book I’ve never heard of. On a recent trip, I picked up The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham.

I’ve never been introduced to Maugham before. Actually, I’ve never even heard of him. After this book, I plan on returning to his books often. The Painted Veil is the story of Kitty, a silly society girl who marries a geeky academic scientist out of her desperation to be a bride. She quickly begins and affair with another married man, and they are discovered by her husband shortly after that. Her husband gives her two choices: get her lover to leave his wife and marry her, in which case he will give her a painless annulment, or accompany him on a research and mercy trip into an area of China that is infected with a plague of Cholera. In a painful scene, Kitty begs her lover to leave his wife, and is humiliatingly dismissed. She returns home to find that her husband was expecting that reaction and has already had her things packed for their expedition.

In China, Kitty’s husband throws himself into his work and seems determined to kill himself. Kitty is at first bored, and then decides to volunteer at an orphanage run by French Catholic nuns. Kitty’s mental, spiritual, and compassionate awakening is beautifully written. Knowing Kitty’s new world perspective gives the eventual heart wrenching ending even more poignancy.

Based on the cover art I assumed the book was written in the last decade or two. It turns out I was wrong. As I was reading, I was so intrigued by this “new” author that I flipped to the copyright page and discovered it was written in 1925. The language is remarkably modern and easy to read. Thankfully, it seems like he was a prolific author. I’ve since checked out several more of Maugham’s books. I have a new author to explore!

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