I absolutely loved the first and only previous book by Maugham that I read, The Painted Veil, which was recommended to me by two friends who know my tastes quite well. It had been my intention to make Razor’s Edge my next Maugham, but this one fit a monthly tag of books pertaining to orphans that an online reading group was doing for July, so I went with it.
Of Human Bondage follows the life of Philip Carey, who after being orphaned at a very young age is sent to live with an aunt and uncle, the latter of whom is a vicar in a small English village. The novel is a Bildungsroman, following Philip as he grows and progresses through young adulthood, moving from vocation to vocation and through the foibles of passionate first loves.
Unfortunately, this one just didn’t have the same kind of emotional punch that The Painted Veil delivered for me. I am willing to admit that some of my problem might have been that I did this one on audio and the other I actually read; the difference in format might have caused me to miss some of the lovely nuances of prose that I so loved in my first Maugham experience. It really did seem to me that the beautiful phrasing that was such a hallmark of The Painted Veil was missing here. Toward the end of the novel there were a couple of quotes that I thought I might have marked had the book been in print, but nothing like the stack of Post-Its that littered my copy of the other work.
Another issue that I had with this novel is that I didn’t care for any of the main characters. Philip has an almost obsessive love affair with one young woman who I found nothing short of repugnant. Maugham describes her as a brainless shrew, and Philip himself calls her a woman with no imagination or sense of humor. I simply couldn’t buy that he would continue to be pulled into consorting with a woman whom even he uses more negative adjectives to describe than positive. Given that the relationship was a pivotal one in the book, it made the whole arc of the plot a bit of an unrealistic stretch for me.
Overall the book was an interesting study between the sexes. My reading friend, Mary, one of those who recommended a number of Maugham novels for me, told me to pay attention to how he treats his women. While I didn’t notice much in The Painted Veil, I did notice in this one that there is either something weak or unpleasant about all of the female characters. Not a single one was wholly likable. I admit that flaws are what make characters real, breathe life into them, but some of these women seemed rather unredeemed by anything positive.
This is definitely not a plot driven novel. It is above all a study of personal evolution, a rumination on how the company a young person keeps and environment in which they choose to abide affect the views they acquire and the path their life takes.
I am unsure as to whether or not reading the book in print would have overcome the issues that caused me not to rate this novel higher. It was a marvelous, introspective look into the workings of one young life. Unfortunately, I simply didn’t love the novel. That ambiguous something that can take a deeply thoughtful novel and tip the scales over into enjoyable was just somehow missing for me. The narration by Steven Crossley was more than adeptly managed. I did listen to it at 1.25 speed, because it seemed a little on the slow side, but other than that, I think the audio kept me going through a book I might have really struggled to read on my own.
At twenty-seven hours of audio or roughly 650 pages in print, this book is not for someone looking for a quick read. Neither its heft nor its content will appeal to most readers. However, those who love very introspective character studies and a large and varied cast of supporting personalities will find in this novel, if not a five star new love, at least a thought provoking and enjoyable read.