Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Painted Veil

Don't you just love that cover art? It's from the original edition of William Somerset Maugham's novel. On Friday, our book group met for our nearly-annual-Halloween-dress-as-your-favorite-book-character-eat-pizza-and-chatter-wing-ding. We decided to watch and discuss a movie instead of reading a book. We chose The Painted Veil, and because I found the film so moving, and I remembered how much I liked Maugham's The Razor's Edge, I raced through the book as well. Every once in a while I need a good, solid reminder on why some authors endure and others make a lot of noise for a little time, and then vanish.

Maugham crafts intensely steely characters, who despite their apparent iciness, embody a range of emotions running from childlike transparency to deeply churning angst. He studied to be a doctor, and what he saw during those years - watching how people bear pain and still cling to hope - finds it way into most of his work. His characters grow, they evolve, they often become exactly what we want them to become. That is what happened in The Painted Veil, but that predictability did not disappoint me. Knowing Kitty and Walter would grow apart, then find their way back to each other let me concentrate on the paths they took to do so. Had I been so concerned with their ultimate fates, I would have missed the power of the political, social, and emotional dramas playing out as the backdrop of their story.

Kitty is pampered. Walter is driven. Cholera is killing. That blend explodes into a painful series of events. Some of the resolutions are sad, others are bitter, some are satisfying, but all are logical given the actions, and decisions leading up to them. Maugham's work never feels contrived. In that way he reminds me of Graham Greene. If you haven't read either of these writers, you might want to start with The Razor's Edge (Maugham) of The Quiet American by Greene. Both writers set their novels and short stories in exotic locations such as China, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Those locations make the film adaptations so compelling for me. The Quiet American takes place in Saigon, and the scenery is breathtaking, as it is in the latest version of The Painted Veil set in Shanghai. Both Naomi Watts (Kitty) and Ed Norton (Walter) were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in The Painted Veil

I first ran across Naomi Watts in an eye-opening Australian mini-series called The Brides of Christ. The four-part series follows four young women in a Catholic convent. I think Watts was a teenager when the series was developed, but she was the character to watch. Her performance appeared effortless. It's available on two discs from Netflix. Worth watching!

Now, just who cam to the party? We had several Harry Potter characters, Kinsey, from sue Grafton's alphabet mysteries, Boo Radley, and a people cleverly disguised as book group members!

What am I reading? I am deep into Bill Bryson's Shakespeare. I'll try not to get to lecturish about that but those old teacher habits come back rather quickly. For next month, our book group decided that we should each read a biography/autobiography of our choice. In attempt to not drone on and on about Billy the Bard, I decided to go in an entirely different direction ... Boy, by Roald Dahl Last week's New York Times Book Review section had an article on Dahl, supplied to me by my ever vigilant friend, Pat. I suppose additional research on Dahl and his works will be order. I suppose I will have to watch "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' - the Johnny Depp version. Oh, the sacrifices I make for this book group!