This is the first book of Somerset Maugham I have chosen to read, and hence, I have had only the curiosity and no other preconceived notions. Nonetheless, I have never expected it to be an exemplary narrative. The story is set in Hong Kong and later in China, during the 1920s. One would have never imagined it possible to weave the story around a simple plot and make it a compelling read. Maugham achieves it by weaving magic with words in just about 200 pages and keeps the reader’s attention riveted throughout. The author invokes Dante in the preface giving you an inkling of the plot. His understanding of human nature stands out, and he explores the happenings of the story without being judgmental of his characters, which come alive in different hues.
Kitty Garstin, a frivolous, shallow, but ambitious and beautiful woman marries an intelligent, considerate and honorable Dr Walter Fane. Unhappy with her marriage, she gets into an affair with Charlie Townsend, an ambitious, handsome, but much married Colonial Secretary. When Walter discovers the adultery, he insists on Kitty accompanying him to a remote location in mainland China. In the midst of a cholera epidemic, amidst caring nuns and unfamiliar Chinese people, with Water eventually succumbing to cholera, Kitty slowly discovers the meaning of life. In the end, she returns to her father with determination, hope and courage to face the future.
Interestingly, the book throws up profound questions about love and life in the mind of the reader.
Kitty Fane’s passionate love of Charlie Townsend is superficial and physical, and she is unable to control her passion in spite of realizing him to be a despicable, opportunistic coward.
Charlie Townsend’s so called ‘love’ for Kitty Fane is nothing but a convenient means of fulfilling his banal needs, with very little concern for his devoted wife or for that matter Kitty herself.
Walter Fane’s compelling, yet genuine love for Kitty despite her drawbacks and the fact she does not like him, indicates a flaw in his persona.
Dorothy Townsends love for her wayward husband is in the mould of a dutiful wife. Whereas the funny Waddington’s love for the Chinese woman is more out of kindness, yet meaningful.
Finally the love of the nuns for the Chinese orphans is religious in nature, as a way towards salvation.
Do all these indicate different manifestations of ‘Love’? Or none of this is ‘Love’ in the true sense? As much as Kitty Fane, the reader is also left pondering over these fundamental questions.
‘The Painted Veil’ by Somerset Maugham is a classic and a must-read book.
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