The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham, is an early twentieth-century novel about lust, unrequited love and courage, taking place principally in the Chinese countryside.
When Kitty Garstin marries Walter Fane it is not for love. As she says herself, she never loves him, not at any point in the novel, despising his “sardonic” sense of humour and his crooked ways. No, Kitty does not marry for love. Instead, she marries Walter in a panic: her younger sister is already engaged; Kitty herself is nearing the ripe old age of 24 or 25; and this marriage would require her to live in Hong Kong, so she wouldn't have to deal with her sister's wedding or go on any loathsome family holidays ever again. Sorted. Walter on the other hand, adores Kitty. She is beautiful and chatty and funny, and Walter, though regretting that his love is unrequited, is happy enough with the situation to carry on with his life in peace.
In the bustling city of Hong Kong, Kitty meets many new people, old and young, men and women, all from the British Colonial base. One such person is Charlie Townsend, a charming, well-built man with a handsome face and apparently wonderful eyes. He is Kitty's undoing. Married himself, he never really loves Kitty so much as takes the opportunity she throws at him, and when Walter finds out a year later on finding them himself, Charlie has no intention of leaving his wife and saving Kitty from the clutches of Walter's ultimatum.
In short, the ultimatum is either stay with Walter or be divorced by Walter. The latter involves staying in Hong Kong. The former involves moving to the city of Mei tan fu, a bacteriologist, but this is less appealing as the site is ridden with a terrible cholera epidemic of which the citizens are dropping like flies. It is this option she is forced to choose.
This is where we see a journey of self-discovery take place. Kitty barely ever takes in someone's personality when we have a person described to us. It is always how attractive they are; how nice their eyes are or how revolting their nose is. Tired of hanging around the house all day and all night, Kitty decides to work with the French nuns who manage the orphanage, and here we see what was a dislike of “ugly” Chinese children change to a love of children and the development of a maternal instinct, just one example of how this new life changes her.
Simultaneously, Kitty learns to live with Walter, though he never really forgives her for her sinful behaviour and though she never fails to remind the reader that she does not love him and could never love him. She befriends the Customs man, Waddington, a squat man with a good sense of humour and a chatty tongue. It is Waddington who tells her about the Way, which is essentially a path of self-discovery the Chinese have figured out long before us.
Over the course of her stay in Mei tan fu, Kitty realises everything she never had figured out, sees everything she was blind to, and understands everything she felt clueless about previously. Her relationship with Charlie, for example, and Charlie's true self. Her superficiality shines through here again; she satisfies herself by telling herself that he was too fat, his eyebrows were apelike and revolting and his face was ugly, as opposed to thinking that his charm and his flattery were all false.
The Painted Veil really is a good read. The whole self-discovery makes it a great holiday read and it isn't too long at 200 odd pages so do give it a go. The film, starring Naomi Watts as Kitty and the thin one from Fight Club is great too, I must admit, following the story the whole way, though it is dramatised a bit, making us believe that Kitty does love Walter towards the end, but that's Hollywood for you.