Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Never Too Late

The Painted Veil
by W. Somerset Maugham

I had never read any Maugham before, but this one was recommended by a congregation member who had liked the book and also really enjoyed the movie of it that was made about a year ago. I may have to rent the movie now, because the online reviews that I read of this on facebook were divided. Some said "The movie killed the ending." Others said "The movie ends so much better than the book." Personally, I HATE it when a movie totally changes the ending of a book, especially when they gloss over a sad ending. I mean, I want happily ever after as much as the next person, but I think that the movies should stick to what the author intended.

This is a compelling story and a quick read, but I never felt fully engaged with the characters, mostly because Kitty and Walter (the two main characters, an estranged husband and wife) could never seem to intersect emotionally or spiritually. The reader feels for Walter in his pain over Kitty's betrayal, but gets exasperated when he refuses to relate to her once she resolves to make an effort to have some kind of connection with him.

I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone who might choose to read this, but I saw the penultimate major event coming a mile away. There was nothing else the author could do with poor old Walter, who by that time had dug his heels in so far there was no going back. What I found intriguing about the book was Kitty's transformation from vapid social climber into someone searching for meaning in existence. By the end of the book, she has developed a sincere desire to be useful. Kitty's experience of the nuns at the convent, her sense that there is something going on in their interior lives that she would like to be part of, is a major catalyst for the change within her. (Aside: it is disturbing and sad to me that so often major characters in novels, whom I presume in some way reflect the perspective of the author, may be desperately searching for meaning and for some way to make sense of this crazy world but so often are utterly dismissive of religious faith. So often faith is portrayed as the quaint practice of the kooky and uneducated) Kitty has no background in religion or any kind of spiritual tradition, but there is a yearning for something more than the boring and shallow existence that has characterized her life up to her sojourn in China.

Given that the original copyright of The Painted Veil was in the early 1920s, one has to give Maugham credit for being ahead of his time. Early in the book, it is easy to loathe Kitty because she is so spoiled and feels so entitled. We learn, however, that she learned to be that way from her own mother and from the culture in which she was raised. When we come to understand how much she has to overcome, it is much easier to root for her. I love how at the end she hopes her unborn child will be a girl so she can give her own daughter a better start than her battle-axe of a mother gave her.

Kitty is still a young woman as the story unfolds. We have a sense that she is starting a whole new life, one that holds the possibility of real relationship with her father. It's never too late - for transformation, for reconciliation, for redemption. Maugham may not speak the language of faith or the church, but the promises of faith are all over this novel.

Reverent Reader


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