Monday, May 11, 2009

The Painted Veil

W. Somerset Maugham - 289 pps.

You know what most men aren't good at? Figuring out what goes on inside the minds of women. You know what W. Somerset Maugham isn't good at?

Published in 1925, The Painted Veil tells the story of Kitty Fane, a vapid British socialite. She moved with her new husband, Walter, to the British colony of Hong Kong, where he is a bacteriologist. But this is no honeymoon story. Kitty does not love Walter, who is socially awkward and aloof, but married him because she was getting too old to be single. He inexplicably adores her, even though she's vain and silly. Unfortunately for Walter, she falls head over heels for the charming, powerful, and married Charles Townsend and they begin a passionate affair. Eventually Walter catches on and she asks for a divorce. He says he will agree to it if Kitty can get Charles and Charles's wife to make written statements that promise that they will divorce and that he will marry Kitty. If they won't do that, Kitty will have to accompany Walter to his new post in a remote village where he will be treating a cholera epidemic. Charles won't do it, of course, because the scandal would ruin his career, and Kitty is devastated. Not only has her lover abandoned her, he's sent her off to certain death.

That's about the first hundred pages. It's a pretty big wind-up just to get to this little village, and even when we get there, nothing much happens. Or it does, but it's all inside Kitty's mind and heart. The problem with that is that the author is a man and he doesn't seem to understand women very well. Or even like them.

This is supposed to be the story of a woman finding herself, but all this woman finds is that she needs a man. Maugham paints most of the women as petty, vapid and needy, and Kitty is the worst of all of them. When she finally realizes how shallow she's been, she explains it to her husband in this awful self-deprecating way that not only demeans her, but all women. The only strong females are a group of French nuns who run a mission in the village.

I think the biggest failure of this novel is the underdevelopment of the setting. There are so many opportunities missed. We see almost nothing of Chinese culture. Kitty can't speak Chinese, so she only ever has conversations with white people. There is one scene where Kitty talks through a white translator to a Chinese woman, but it's brief and nothing is really established by it. There is no comment made on the imperialism, good or bad. These white people are getting carried everywhere in sedan chairs! Come on!

Maugham misses the game-winning pass

But I'm not being entirely fair. I didn't hate it. The novel has its good points. The writing is nice, detailed but not tedious, and it flows well. It's short and easy to read, especially because of the short chapters that give you the impression of progress and encourage you to keep reading. It could easily be finished in a day.

My favorite part of the novel was the dynamic between Kitty and Walter. Walter still cares for Kitty, but can't bring himself to trust her, or even tolerate her, again. Kitty is desperate for Walter to forgive her because his anger is running him into the ground. Also, she realizes Walter is the only person in the world who cares for her at all. Their dialogue is tense and revealing of both their characters. The relationship has a suspense built into it in that it could change at any moment.

The problem is it doesn't! It doesn't change, nobody changes, or really learns anything, if their actions are any indication. Kitty has a thousand little revelations on the nature of existence that ultimately lead to nothing. The only thing that noticeably changes about our heroine is that she is now able to see into the motivations of others. But this only leads to more philosophizing on Maugham's part about the selfish nature of relationships and how little people really mean to each other.

It was a really depressing book. It was so disappointing, mostly because it had so much potential to be great, and it missed the mark. The plot could have gone somewhere. The main character could have been less of a caricature. I could have come away a better person! But no, I just learned a lot about Maugham's issues with women.

I hear the recent movie adaptation with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts has a different ending and is, in general, a more worthwhile venture. So if I were you, I'd stick with the movie.

Edward Norton > W. Somerset Maugham

-Daisy Buchanan