Written by an esteemed British novelist/playwright of yesteryear, you might expect The Painted Veil to be a bit stodgy. However, in today’s parlance, W. Somerset Maugham keeps it real in this story of betrayal and quest for redemption or revenge or self-realization. You can’t be sure what the characters are after.
The story begins with the beautiful, but shallow Kitty cuckolding her all to serious husband, Walter, with the life of the ex-pat party in Hong Kong, Charles, the Assistant Colonial Secretary. Walter, knowing that Charles was just looking to pull the pump and dump on Kitty, agrees to let Kitty go amicably if Charles divorces his wife. If not, she must accompany him, a bacteriologist by training, inland to battle cholera in the stricken Chinese city of Mei-tan-fu. Ecstatic, Kitty runs to Charles with her offer of perpetual happiness only to learn that she is a fool.
Despondent, she now must travel inland with Walter on the apparent suicide mission. During her days in the dying city, Kitty realizes that her life to date has been self-centered and indolent. In the city, she meets self-sacrificing French nuns and a quirky confidant, the alcoholic Customs-man Waddington. She also watches the city’s knight in shining armor, Walter, save thousands of lives, to the adoration of tens of thousands. You might think you know where this is headed, but a broken heart can’t be mended, nor the fires of passion reignited where they never once were. Somerset Maugham deserves credit for not attempting to tie a bow on anything here. Mistakes made aren’t always learned from or pardoned. That’s life. One heck of a good book…and racist as all eff.