The Painted Veil (Vintage International)

The Painted Veil - W. Somerset Maugham Short (and Vague) Version: a surprisingly poignant, non-cliched [and non-romantic] tale of forgiveness and friendship.Long Version: I was bored one day, working at a trail museum, when I found this book stuffed underneath the cash register. I decided to give it a few pages, since the synopsis sounded a little too (frankly) boring to delve all the way into. WRONG. Instead I became obsessed, finished the entire book during my eight-hour workday, and spent the remainder of my shift on a good-book high. Here's the background information (none of this is spoiler-y): It's about a woman named Kitty who lives in 1920's London. More interested in parties than in the excruciating process of courtship, she abruptly engages herself to an awkward scientist in hopes of beating out her sister in marrying first. The scientist's name is Walter Fane. Together, these two people have zip chemistry, and Walter knows it. Yet he still loves Kitty and, when they both move for his work after the wedding, he tries to make adjustment to life in Shanghai fun for her. But with him knee-deep in work and her left to be a bored housewife, Kitty attaches herself to a charismatic (and married) man named Charlie Townsend. They have a brief affair, which is what the book opens with, and are caught by Walter. Walter, heartbroken and furious, decides to take up his work's offer to go into the heart of China and help treat a cholera epidemic. Yes, Walter is psychotic with bitterness and Kitty is selfish, but you like them anyway. Kitty hates Walter for punishing her, since he always knew where she stood in their marriage, and Walter hates her for being so self-involved and hurtful. No, this is not a romance. Kitty and Walter are foisted out of their frivolous roaring-twenties living and are forced to deal with large-scale problems (like finding clean drinking water in rural China and conducting disease-controlling burials for the townspeople). In this, they both have to rely on one another and somehow put their own regret aside. The reason I love this book so much is because it avoids the typical and-then-they-realized-they-belonged-together cliche. No, Kitty and Walter do not belong together. But they do find fascinating common ground, even if it is outside of their homeland. They make sacrifices for one another, even though such extremes are not founded in romance, and even create a tentative friendship. I have never seen such an honest portrayal of marriage, which is pretty impressive considering the time it was published (late 1920's). After reading this, I want to read Maugham's other novels. Disclaimer: I must say that I did eventually watch the movie version of this. It has a very different take on the novel, and the film does turn briefly romantic. However, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are fantastic, and the landscape is gorgeous.