The Painted Veil (or, Loveless in the Time of Cholera)

The Painted VeilThe Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read so many books about affairs tearing marriages apart. But could a passionate, torrid affair bring a husband and wife closer together? Could the affair be what allows them to finally love each other? This premise intrigues me. It turns out that it’s not the premise of The Painted Veil, though. I think I’d been misled by my hazy memories of the movie.

Kitty Fane is a ridiculous, vain woman—and she is the first to admit it. She only married Walter because her youth was fading and she couldn’t let her younger sister beat her to the altar. Walter sees right through her, but he doesn’t care. He can’t help it—he loves her. When she agrees to marry him and go to Hong Kong for his career as a bacteriologist, he’s thrilled.

He’s not so thrilled when he catches Kitty having an affair with the dashing Charlie. He offers Kitty an ultimatum: follow him deep into the jungles of China in the middle of a cholera epidemic, or get served. When Kitty protests, he makes what seems like a generous compromise: If Kitty can convince Charlie to divorce his wife, Walter will let Kitty divorce him. Then Kitty and Charlie will be free to marry each other and Walter will step aside. Kitty is sure that Charlie will agree to it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. The cholera epidemic it is.

Kitty and Walter get carried on chairs through the jungle into a remote community. The description of the landscape, the heat, and the dread is evocative. While I wasn’t too fond of Kitty, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. She becomes reckless, eating raw salad despite the warnings. She wants to die—if only to spite Walter. While her husband doctors the sick, Kitty gets to know the customs officer and the French nuns, who marvel at her bravery for accompanying her husband on this dangerous mission.

I kept waiting for them to fall back in love, but, as I discovered, that’s not what this story ended up being about. These days, it’s common to believe that love is a choice. I heard Dr. Phil yell it to his audience one time: “Love is not a feeling. It’s a CHOICE!” Maugham would beg to differ. We can’t choose whom we love; if we could, wouldn’t everything be so much simpler? Everyone loves the wrong person. We love bad people even when good people are right there, offering themselves to us. Kitty understands, on a very deep level, that Charlie is a terrible person. She loves him anyway. Eventually she finds peace within herself, and she realizes she doesn’t love him anymore, and that is the greatest feeling of freedom and peace she has ever achieved. (Sadly, she is not able to hang onto it for long.)

At the same time, we can’t choose to love people even when they deserve it. Kitty learns that her husband is revered in these parts. He is a kind and brave doctor, sacrificing himself to save others in the midst of an epidemic. He adored Kitty and now she respects him, but it’s too late. She can’t love him and he has closed himself off to her. They’re both trapped.

The characters in The Painted Veil are not likable, so if you enjoy books with people you can root for, this isn’t it. There are also many racist and imperialist attitudes espoused by the characters, though I wouldn’t call the text itself racist. It’s clear that Kitty’s attitudes are unenlightened ones. She does work to become a more tolerant person, but she is nevertheless guided by her baser instincts. That is her (and maybe all of our) ultimate downfall.

View all my reviews

Book review: Shari Goldhagen’s In Some Other World, Maybe

In Some Other World, MaybeIn Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At first I wasn’t sure I should give In Some Other World, Maybe five whole stars. It had pulled me in so completely that when it was over, I wasn’t sure if the tingling feeling it left me with was the aftershocks from an intense crush rather than true love. I wondered if Shari Goldhagen’s second novel was the equivalent of that handsome bad boy who sweeps you off your feet, takes you on 100-miles-per-hour motorcycle rides on ocean-side cliffs, tells you you’re beautiful, and then rides off into the sunset without leaving so much as his number. This book took me by surprise and did the right thing, in the end: it stuck with me.

In Some Other World, Maybe reminds me of the movie version of Short Cuts, where a lot of different stories happen to a large cast of characters, and slowly but surely, their paths cross and you start to see how everything and everyone is connected. The novel opens in the early 1990s, when all our main players catch a different screening of a large-budget sci-fi film called Eons & Empires. This gives all our characters a common experience, and it introduces a theme that resonates throughout the novel: Our lives intersect with other people’s lives—sometimes by chance, sometimes because of decisions we make. In some other world, maybe . . . things would have gone differently. But we live in this world, and we have to make the most of it. We have to make sure not to take the people in it for granted.

The characters at the center of the novel are Phoebe and Adam. They were both in high school when Eons & Empires came out, but they don’t meet until they’re in their twenties. Both aspiring actors, they’re roommates who hook up sometimes. They’re drawn to each other, attracted to each other, but for various reasons have never managed to make it work as a committed, monogamous couple, even though deep down, that’s what each of them most desires.

Over the course of the book, twenty years go by, and the relationship between Adam and Phoebe evolves. They go from friends to lovers to friends again. Years into their friendship, a family tragedy brings them closer together, and they’re forced to confront their feelings for each other. They resemble no one I know in real life—Adam is a handsome television actor with a chip on his shoulder, Phoebe is glamorous and spoiled, her body perfected by plastic surgeons, her heart wide-open and true. Still, they emerge as fully-developed three-dimensional characters. I became immersed in their relationship drama to the point that I cried—actually shed real tears!—at four separate points in the book. I just really believed in them, and longed for them to make it work. The obstacles they faced rang true, even if I did want to shake Adam by the shoulders at several points and yell in his face, “Don’t let her go, you idiot!”

Other characters orbit Adam and Phoebe’s world, too. It’s always a risk to crowd a book with too many characters. Readers might be tempted to skip over the characters they don’t like to get to the “good stuff.” For me, this wasn’t a problem. I found myself really rooting for all of them.

Over the years, the paths of each main character and several minor ones zigzag back and forth over each other. Sometimes they realize it—Oliver will recognize Phoebe’s mother while on a trip overseas, for example. Other times, they don’t—one time, Adam is standing in line next to Sharon in an airport, but they are (at that point) strangers to each other. It might sound unbelievable, as if the plot relies on too many of these coincidental connections, but those connections reinforce the point the book is trying to make—that all of us are tied together in ways we don’t even realize.

In Some Other World, Maybe is the book I wanted The Interestings to be. It is relevant, engrossing, moving, and an all-around entertaining read. Five stars!

View all my reviews