Book Review: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil

I’m pretty sure I have never read a book so depressing and yet so interesting as this book. Most probably know of this book due to the 2006 adaptation of it starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton (I’ve seen parts of the movie, so I knew the basic plot, but not the details). I’ve avoided reading this book mostly because it looked incredibly depressing, and I avoid such books most of the time. However, I did want to read it eventually, and finally I did.

Release: 1925

Synopsis: The beautiful but spoiled Kitty Fane marries a young doctor and moves to Hong Kong during the 1920’s. There she engages in an affair with a married man and is caught by her husband. Her husband then moves them to a small village in China attacked by a cholera epidemic. This story is one of growth, change, and forgiveness.

Spoiler Review

This is not a romance, which I expected after seeing the trailer for the movie. This book is instead about a spoiled young woman who grows up due to her harsh environment. It is a serious book, but one which imparts an important message that love is sacrifice and selfishness hurts oneself as much as it hurts those around one. The writing style changes over the course of the book, from abrupt and focused on Kitty to detailed and moving as Kitty’s reality begins to change. Many of the other characters are there simply to change Kitty’s perception of the world, and there were many times I wanted to learn more about characters like Walter and Charlie.

This is a short book, sitting at about 240 pages. Because of this, none of the ideas are deeply examined. For example, the theme of grief following Kitty’s husband’s death (Spoiler!) is nearly shoved aside for Kitty’s growth. The question of religion and salvation and morality are second to Kitty realizing how selfish she has been. Maybe I only perceive this as a bad thing because I just finished Les Miserables, which gets into the detail of every philosophy and theme. This book instead flutters through many different ideas and life philosophies.

You have Charlie, the man Kitty is in love with, who only thinks of himself and shows what real narcissism is. On the other hand, you have Walter, who would give up everything for Kitty and is willing to die when he finds out she was unfaithful to him. Many of the ideas in this book are presented by contrasts. Europeans are different from the Chinese. Kitty’s youth and naivety contrasts with Mother Superior’s age and wisdom. The contrast between the wealth of Hong Kong and England and the poverty of a small village in mainland China. Walter is quiet and faithful while Kitty is loud and unfaithful. These contrasts make the themes in this book even more apparent.

I did enjoy it, but I found myself rather sad by the end, even though I knew how it ended before I started. I would have dearly liked for Kitty and Walter to reconcile, even if Walter died afterwards, but instead his last words are rather vague. Saying that, it is a beautiful and moving book, and a cautionary tale for those who take marriage and faithfulness lightly. Kitty makes a point in the end that she wants to raise her daughter to be strong, not weak and silly like she was raised. I loved how Kitty ended up going home to England and staying with her newly widowed father, instead of remarrying. She learned how to be strong and not care what people said about her.

I only knew of the 2006 adaptation of this book, but apparently there are two others: one in 1934 starring Greta Garbo and the other (called “The Seventh Sin”) in 1957 starring Eleanor Park. Apparently the 1934 one does not have Walter dying, so perhaps I will watch that one (even if it sounds very far from the original book).

Have you heard of this book before? Or seen any of the movies? Does it look interesting to you? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

  1. I love the movie of 2006 with Edward Norton, and only after watching the movie I read the book. I recall that the movie changed the story somewhat. I now want to re-read the book, perhaps I will like it more this time around.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with you also that none of the ideas were considered deeply in the book. I will be interested to know what you think of the movie. I thought it worked brilliantly, the plot, the acting, the score. But then again, I actually saw it last time ten years ago, in 2009 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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