I saw the film of The Painted Veil a few years ago and was very impressed. Stunning scenery and photography with gorgeous costumes but most of all it was the simplicity of the dialogue, pure quality with not a wasted word. I enjoyed the crispness of the characters and thought Edward Norton was especially wonderful.
So I had high expectations of this little book and have to admit that my experience of reading it was heavily influenced by memories of the film. From memory I think the film had a more romantic angle than the book – I enjoyed that at the time but especially liked that the book wasn’t neat and tidy – there is resolution of sorts between the characters but the outcome of the story wasn’t especially predictable.
Kitty marries Walter Fane and they set off immediately from 1920’s England for Hong Kong where Walter is posted as a bacteriologist. Walter is a person of integrity and is in love with Kitty, a love she does not return. She finds him dull and soon after arriving embarks on an affair with one of Walter’s colleagues Charles. The book starts with Kitty in bed with her lover staring in horror as someone tries the door handle and then the window of their room. It is immediately obvious that Kitty is a shallow and spoiled woman and she has attracted in Charles a man of similar character.
Fast forward a few tense chapters and Kitty and her husband make the arduous journey across China to assist in an area stricken with Cholera. Walter has volunteered to go and help – Kitty views this as a certain death sentence.
What follows amounts to the beginning of a spiritual awakening for Kitty.
The writing is wonderful, insightful and with a good level of suspense – it’s a short book and now I want to read something else by Somerset Maugham straight away. I’m tempted by Up at the Villa – another slim book, but also the much longer Of Human Bondage. I’m a complete novice when it comes to this writer, coming to him with no preconceived ideas at all which is great I think.
Stories of travel and transformation are one of my favourites and The Painted Veil reminds me in that vein of The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – a story that didn’t completely win me over at the time but one that I’ve thought about quite a bit since. I’m also keen to read another of Bowles’ books soon too – perhaps Up Above the World.
It’s a beautiful sunny morning here and I’m going to go for a walk and come back to some comfort reading later on. I’ve just started The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas – another travel and discovery type story – set in India. It looks good so far.
Wishing everyone a happy day of reading.
1925, 240 pages