The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (Review and Book/Movie Comparison)

Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge

Hahaha, the last book review on this blog was uploaded in early July. I hope I’m not too rusty.

(Although the fact that I finished The Painted Veil in early July also does not bode well).

Having read this novel nearly four months ago means that I have forgotten the finer details. Overall, however, I really liked it, in spite of my inability to create neat conclusions of its message and/or themes. Yet, in a way, the lack of absolute coherence in The Painted Veil added to its charm. Especially as the novel tackles some topics that, in real life, defies easy categorization, such as: the irrationality of romantic feeling and the influence on religion on one’s character.

Kitty, a pretty and frivolous English debutante, missed her prospects in the marriage market. In a panic, she accepts the proposal of Walter Fane, a dull bacteriologist due to sail to Crown Colony Hong Kong for his post. They quickly marry and settle in the colony, where Kitty meets Charlie Townsend, a handsome, suave, and married British government official. Kitty and Charlie fall into an affair and The Painted Veil enters at the point when Walter discovers the infidelity.

At first, Kitty and Charlie dismiss Walter. He is Charlie’s inferior in the job ladder. He is far too besotted with Kitty. Instead, Walter pushed an ultimatum to Kitty: he will either file for divorce and humiliate her, or she must follow him to the cholera-infested Chinese interior, risking death. Charlie shows his true colors: craven and unsympathetic. Kitty has no option but follow Walter to the mainland.

The Painted Veil, at least the novel version, is the story of Kitty’s introspection and self-improvement. It is not a love story, which the 2006 film adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts might lead you to believe.

While I liked the film version for what it was, I much preferred the novel. The novel’s outlook on life is far less simple. Love, and the blossoming of romantic love, is never simple. In the film, Kitty sees Walter’s virtues: his devotion to patients, his kindness, his morals, learns the error of her ways and falls in love with him. Kitty’s book counterpart, however, never falls in love with her husband despite seeing and acknowledging his qualities. She grows to admire him, but eros does not strike.

I appreciated the book’s touch. The film, in a way, pushed a simplistic message: “women, be less foolish and frivolous and just fall in love with the nice guy, will ya?” Never mind the fact that one must wonder at Walter’s supposed kindness when he insisted on bringing Kitty to a region that may spell death.

(I inwardly applauded “That’s my girl!” when book-Kitty exclaimed, “It’s not my fault you were an ass!” at Walter’s misguided punishment)

Kitty’s journey towards self-betterment, almost a coming of age, really, is believable because of the missteps she makes along the way. No one can ever say that Kitty attained perfection. Despite maturing throughout The Painted Veil, she falls short again and again. But she does learn after every debacle. She becomes stronger, wiser. Yet even stronger and wiser, Kitty can still make dreadful decisions – with a particular error close to the novel’s end. But Kitty learns from that too.

At the start of this review, I wrote that I couldn’t eke out the message of The Painted Veil. But perhaps it is simply this: that we make horrible mistakes in life, then we learn and get stronger. We slip up again. But we survive.

Maybe it’s trite. But that’s the point of fiction, no? To make clichéd bumper sticker phrases fresh and true all over again.

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