Don’t you just love it when a film puts you on the trail of a good book that would otherwise have gone unnoticed? As a sometime Edward Norton fan, I saw The Painted Veil in the cinema when it first came out. I loved its stylish evocation of 1920s China and delicate tragedy but it took me a while to get around to W. Somerset Maugham’s original novel. Inevitably, as with any adaptation, one will be compare against the other (I hear Mookology is a recognised discipline now 😉 ). However, I found the book to be quite a different thing altogether.
Unlike the film, Kitty is very much the dominant focus of the novel as it charts her spiritual awakening. Her betrayed husband Walter, as in the film, offers a contrast in masculinity to her imposing lover Charles, but both men are essentially a means by which Kitty eventually triumphs over her naive shallowness and overcomes the failings passed on to her by a difficult mother. She is selfish, infuriating, never loves her husband and yet, as the story draws to a close she, or rather Maugham, has managed to wring out some sympathy or perhaps empathy; infuriating when she succumbs to the odious Charles for the last time but brave and honest when she is reconciled to her father on her return to London.
What I especially liked was the fluid style which sweeps with deceptive lightness across a vista of colonialism, love, desire, marriage, hypocrisy and the search for meaning.