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The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I decided to read this book because it sounded like an interesting self-discovery book. I can’t say that I was disappointed, but it wasn’t quite what I expected. I would label this book a classic, primarily because of its language and content. I actually found it was quite interesting although I’m not quite sure why.

The story follows Kitty Fane. She is a young (mid-20s) woman living with her husband Walter in the English colony in Hong Kong, China in the 1920s. Kitty had only married her husband in order to be married before her younger sister, and there is no love in her heart for her husband. She has an affair that her husband found out about. He gave her two choices he divorces her (leaving her ruined socially) or she goes with him to a remote Chinese village to help fight a cholera epidemic. After fighting with her lover, she consents to go to the village.

When she gets to the village, she is in a severe depression and the rest of the story is how she comes to view herself and those around her. There is the local English Customs official for the town that she finds herself in company with a lot, her husband Walter, and the local nuns that she spends the bulk of her time with and help to shape her ideas. The nuns in particular have a profound impact on her as she slowly changes her views of the world.

I think this book was a wonderful cultural read. You learned quite a bit about the English in China in the early 1900s. There’s prejudice and racism. Kitty in particular is quite racist, but for the time the language and opinions wouldn’t have been at all unusual. The first third of the book is Kitty having and being caught about her affair. After that, you move into rural china where a lot of the interesting aspects of the book are. You learned about nuns and why they become missionaries and how they are happy in their work. They reference traveling by chair all the time. I was correct in what I thought that meant, but was still surprised by this mode of travel. Here is the chair that is described. It is carried by¬†collies (indentured servants) from the front and back.

Overall I thought it was an interesting read. I can’t say way in particular I thought it was good, but it was just the general impression of writing style, language, culture, and emotional growth. I can’t say Kitty grew by leaps and bounds, but she did grow some. I liked that the romance scenes happened ‘off stage’ by being alluded to and then a scene change. I enjoyed the language and writing style as well. The chapters are extremely short, some only a page or two long. It made it easy to stop as needed.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys classical fiction. Also, anyone interested in early 1900s China or the English colonization of China in that time frame might enjoy this, as long as they keep in mind it is still fiction and the story focuses on the emotions and life of a young woman. I’m giving it three cheese slices only because I think this is a one and done read. I can’t think that I’ll go back and read it, but it was an enjoyable read the first time through.

My rating:

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