The Painted Veil, by W Somerset Maugham

Kitty, a rather shallow and callous creature, marries the dull but worthy Walter and travels to Hong Kong with him where he has a job as a bacteriologist. She embarks on an affair with Charles Townsend, but then Walter finds out, and issues an ultimatum: accept a divorce, with all the associated damage to her and Charles' reputation, or come with him to a Chinese town where a cholera epidemic is raging.

This book really impressed me - the writing is lovely with a style that is elegant and employing a vocabulary that verges on the archaic (the adjective "singular" is often used) but in a good way. But also the descriptions of the characters and their actions/reactions are so believable. While Kitty starts off as a vain and rather unlikeable woman, she changes through the book and matures into someone quite different, and this is done in a completely convincing way.

And the behaviour of Walter, as someone filled with self-hatred, who wants to hurt himself and those close to him, is really good.

This was another book that felt slight (it was only six hours) although having completed it, I do feel like it was a proper novel - a lot seemed to happen and it spanned several locations and so you felt like you'd been on quite a journey.

When Walter dies, his last words to Kitty are "The dog it was that died", which made as much sense to me as they did to Kitty. But unlike Kitty, I had the internet to use, and could look up what it meant. When I found out, it made my tummy turn over.

And so when Kitty asks Waddington what the quotation means, he hesitates before telling her, and you realise that he too, understands its implications. But he doesn't explain the context to her, so Kitty doesn't properly realise what it means. This was a really striking moment in the book, and for some time after reading it I couldn't stop thinking about it. I wonder how they manage that in the film...

And no further explanation is given in the entire book of the quotation, so as far as we know, Kitty never realises its significance. And nor would many readers, I suppose.

Some of the themes in the book feel fairly contemporary - for example, when Kitty is talking to her father at the end of the book, she says that she hopes that any daugher of hers won't expect that she needs to get a man to provide board and lodgings in exchange for being able to sleep with her. I don't know if that would have been thought rather "fast" (another adjective from the book) at the time of publication.

The ending of the book is done just right as well - I worried that it might be spoiled by a tying up of loose endings, but it finishes with several things unresolved, which was perfect.

I really enjoyed this book, and have got the DVD from Amazon on order to watch the film - can't imagine how they will be able to manage not to spoil it though.

Completed : 28-Jun-2011 (audiobook)

edit: just watched the film (Naomi Watts version). It was very nicely made, and very true to the book (much of the dialogue came straight out of the novel) until nearly the end, when unfortunately they copped out in several ways (spoilers):

Maybe these make for a "better" film - certainly it makes the story more formulaic I think. It's a pity they weren't brave enough to stick with the original story - perhaps I'll have to listen to the commentary and see whether they mention why they did this.

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