Sunday, May 20, 2012

Five best books about the misadventures of expatriates

Born in London and educated there and in Glasgow, Paul French has lived and worked in Shanghai for many years. He is a widely published analyst and commentator on China and has written a number of books dealing with China’s pre-1949 history.

His new book is Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China.

One of French's five best books about the misadventures of expatriates, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
The Painted Veil
by W. Somerset Maugham (1925)

In Somerset Maugham's travels, he came across many seamy tales of colonial misbehavior. Some found their way into his fiction—the short story "Rain," set on a Pacific island, concerns an American prostitute corrupting a missionary; in another story, "The Letter," the wife of a rubber planter near Singapore shoots her lover. Maugham's penchant for writing up the gossip he heard won him a reputation as the man who was always welcome . . . once. He caused a scandal in 1920s Hong Kong society with "The Painted Veil," a novel that hewed with uncomfortable closeness to real-life events in describing an English couple in that city. A dedicated doctor, Walter, is married to Kitty, a shallow young woman who has an affair with "perfect" Charles Townsend, the assistant colonial secretary. When Walter finds out about the affair, he threatens to ruin Kitty with divorce unless she accompanies him on a mission to China's interior to help fight a cholera epidemic—an illness that claims his life. Then Townsend—the cad—reneges on his promise to divorce his wife and marry Kitty. Maugham shows Kitty in the novel as a woman with an awakening conscience, but she never really learns that, fun though colonial misbehavior might be, it rarely turns out well.
Read about the other books on French's list.

--Marshal Zeringue