Book Reviews Literature

What I’ve Been Reading: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

As a pretty frequent reader, I’ve noticed something funny about myself over the years. I realize that I often read strange words or names for years and never really know for sure if the pronunciation in my head is actually correct. Unless I happen to discuss the book I’m reading with a friend, or the word/name comes up organically in a conversation, it can go on for a long time. This was especially true before the internet became such a part our lives and it wasn’t possible to just Google “how do I pronounce —–“. Somerset Maugham is a name that I have seen frequently when spending time at libraries, bookstores, or used book sales. I’ve been aware that he is an important writer from the early to mid-twentieth century. What I haven’t always known is how to pronounce his last name. Even having several American literature courses in college, I don’t remember ever actually hearing Maugham pronounced out loud. Immediately after I purchased this book, I finally heard somebody actually say it out loud. I don’t remember the context, but for some reason Rose says the full name on an episode of The Golden Girls. I happened to watch that episode right after buying A Painted Veil. It was serendipitous. Maugham is pronounced like “Mawm”, by the way.

The early chapters of A Painted Veil seemed a bit dull and stilted. There wasn’t a lot of obvious style, and the description of both the action and the scenery read more pragmatic than literary. I believe, though, that this was done on purpose. When a room is described with a shallow perspective that simply lists how much stuff is there, it shows something about the characters being discussed. The dialogue, instead of being intriguing exchanges between complex characters, is simply a “dignified” back-and-forth between people saying what they think they’re expected to say. The truth is, the dialogue was written that way because it matches the reality of those who lived in a “high society” environment. I have little patience for small talk, and I’m mostly pretty bad at it, so having to read it can become irksome for me.

I thought the writing changed noticeably as the book rolled into Act II. The language became much more beautiful and descriptive, while the dialogue became much more real and meaningful.

*This part of the post has spoilers*

I was quite surprised at the nature of the ending, in a good way. I thought the ending succinctly provided some explanation as to why Kitty behaved the way she did throughout the book, particularly her intimate relationships with men. Wallace, while having some unique traits and idiosyncracies, was too much liker Kitty’s father. He was boring, but also intelligent with a sense of great duty and selflessness. Wallace may not have really been the right guy for Kitty; he was more the guy that she felt obligated to be with because he would unselfishly provide for her. Of course, this led to her getting bored and straying from him. Townsend was the guy/father figure that Kitty thought she wanted from her own father- and Walter. Kitty’s future with her father is a sincere demonstration of respect to him; a second chance to have a substantial life with a man who actually cares for her -albeit her father instead of a husband. Truth be told, I thought Waddington was more the type of guy that Kitty should have married. Due to age and other circumstances, they obviously couldn’t actually have a romantic relationship in the book. Still, I think they got along nicely.

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