I can say with some pleasure that this is the first of Maugham's books that I have ever finished. I've tried many--Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence, The Razor's Edge, Of Human Bondage, and none of them ever quite did it for me. Maugham's style is rather flat and his plots and events something of potboilers. And so it is with this one as well.
However, in this case, I like the particular pot that was boiling. The Painted Veil reads a bit like a two-penny version of any of Greene's great works (I'm thinking here of The Heart of the Matter or The End of the Affair as particular examples). Whereas Greene prefers Africa for his exotic locale, Maugham has chosen China to set his story of infidelity, broken marriage, and redemption.
Vane, shallow, brow-beaten Kitty marries an infatuated intellectual--Walter Fane. Walter Fane is a bacteriologist in the service of the Royal Colony of Hong Kong and he soon enough sweeps her away to that dismal land--so different from and inferior to England where Kitty takes up an affair with a person every bit as shallow and self-absorbed as herself. Upon discovering her affair, Walter gives Kitty an ultimatum--go with him into the cholera-blasted depths of mainland China, where it is entirely likely that she will die, or have him divorce her and as a result get her lover in serious trouble as well. There's a little twist here as well that serves to show Kitty what she has been involved with and starts to clear the path to redemption.
The novel is mercifully brief and to the point. It is also very much of its time--redolent, as I said above, of Graham Greene's ruminations on similar topics and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Nevertheless, it reads well and quickly even now and if there are awkward moments--such as when Maugham practically sticks the reader in the eye with a major, enigmatic symbol in the form of some last words--that passes swiftly enough into the rest of the tale.
Despite some of these imperfections, the book is a good read--enjoyable, a balance of the serious and the light (because the prose is so workmanlike). It would make an excellent beach book for those too self-conscious to carry J. D. Ward (or for that matter J. D. Robb) to the beach.