Maugham’s ‘The Painted Veil’ unveiled


"Well, you know, women are often under the impression that men are much more madly in love with them than they really are."

– Charles Townsend to Kitty Fane, The Painted Veil

Book Group consensus? Well, not sure we actually reached one specifically, but at least two of us came away with more appreciation than we had going in. And isn't that the point of a Book Group? Ah, it certainly is. That's why going into a discussion with disparate opinions is a very good thing. Someone always sees what others don't, and pointing that out can have a huge impact on how the others feel once the discussion has wrapped up.

One of us liked The Painted Veil, and the rest of us were irritated with it. But even the one who enjoyed the novel pointed out flaws in Maugham's novel, wondering if it was his popularity ensuring anything he wrote would be published, regardless of quality. And that could be.

Is every book written by an author who's written "classics" considered to be classic? That's a great question one in the group brought up.

I wouldn't think so. Quality of writing varies, and every author seems to get a little sloppy sometimes. That, or they try something new – out of their usual element – and it falls flat, but still gets published because he or she is a name brand. Think Stephen King. Is Christine as good as The Stand or 'Salem's Lot? Not by a long shot. Yet, both were published and bought up eagerly by King fans.

The same no doubt goes for even those authors considered to be literary. How does Dickens' Pickwick Papers compare to Bleak House? Apples and oranges. Bleak House is a masterpiece; Pickwick Papers is an entertainment. Totally different styles.

But getting back to The Painted Veil, that Kitty… Vapid, vapid Kitty. And Walter! Is he really much better, when it comes down to it? What was he thinking marrying such an empty-headed pretty girl? See, boys? This is why you should look past that pretty face. Let this be a lesson to you, all you many men whom I KNOW are reading this right now.

Which character was more duped, Kitty, who married simply to do so before her sister did, or Walter, who married because he found a pretty girl who'd say yes to anything wearing pants just to leave England? Were both equally naive?

A valid question.

Then, Charles Townsend, the smooth talker. He and wife Dorothy had an understanding, whether express or implied, he would have flings and she would remain his wife and the brains of his career. Seems to have worked quite well for him. Just not so well for an unfortunate woman who fell in love with him.

Waddington? He lived with a Chinese woman, out of wedlock. But neither of them had "significant others" to whom they were married. Again, a different situation.

When it comes down to it, I think we reached the consensus was the "painted veil" was the pretty life Kitty expected when she married Walter. Then, when the veil was lifted, she saw all wasn't what she'd imagined. Being beautiful and spoiled, used to men falling all over her, she wanted another man, one who'd excite her as Walter never could. But then, following a very big turning point, some of us thought she'd changed and others didn't.

That's how we left it, some falling in one camp and some in the other. And there are valid arguments for each opinion. The book is open-ended, intentionally leaving room for each reader to decide for him or herself. Personally, this is the sort of book I enjoy. One that lets the individual reader fill in the blanks based on what s/he has learned about the characters, their personalities, personal morality, etc.

Chalk me up to the side that appreciated the book more after the discussion. And a good discussion it was, too.

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