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The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

It is not hard to see why W.Somerset Maugham wrote The Painted Veil after he was inspired by a fascinating story he read while on vacation as a student.

According to the preface, the story goes that a husband punished his wife for suspected infidelity by taking her to a place where he knew there were noxious gases, and hoping that she would die from inhaling them.

However, she took so long to succumb that he ended up killing her by throwing her out of a window.

Inspired by such an awful, intriguing story, The Painted Veil was bound to be a good one. And so it is.

The story follows Kitty, who has been brought up in a family in which the mother strived for a place higher up on the social ladder than that which her husband’s ambition allowed her to occupy. Fortunately, a pretty daughter in Kitty meant that she might finally have the opportunity to rise among the English upper classes. Unfortunately, Kitty’s search for a suitable husband was not as successful as her mother had hoped, leading her to settle for a bacteriologist working in Hong Kong.

Whisked away to a foreign country where her husband was not as popular as she might have hoped, Kitty disastrously falls into the arms of a dashing Charlie Townsend.

After the infidelity is exposed, Kitty’s wounded and enraged husband forces her to accompany him to a cholera-ridden village of Mei-tan-fu in China, where he can help to stem the outbreak of the disease. Resigned to a likely death, Kitty devotes herself to working with children at a convent in the middle of the stricken village, and this new sense of purpose changes her in ways she could never have expected.

Set in Britain, Hong Kong and China, it touches on the snobbery and ambition of old England, which extended to life in the colonies, and contrasting with the sparseness and complete focus on survival of a small and embattled outpost in China.

The characters are drawn in fine detail – complicated, sometimes unlikeable, but eliciting empathy. Kitty is a particularly complex, flawed hero, shaped by her upbringing and the social climate in which she lived, but forced to break out of the mould due to circumstances sometimes within, sometimes outside, her control.

While it is a literary classic, The Painted Veil is easy to read and even easier to enjoy.

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