So I really thought this book was going to be the end of my reading rut. I haven’t read a book I loved loved loved since The Tapestry of Love back in early October, and when I started this lesser-known book by one of my favorite classic authors, I was immediately swept away. I loved the writing, I loved the characters, I loved everything. Until the second half of the book. I can pinpoint the exact place where it seemed like Maugham decided to change his story around completely. The second half was rushed, out of character, and sloppy. I can see now why this is a lesser known work of Maugham’s, but it makes me sad because the first half was SO GOOD. Sigh.
This is the story of a British family right around the start of WWII. It’s a large family, and there are several interwoven plotlines. There were probably three main stories, so I’m going to focus on those three here. It was the third that really sent the book into a tailspin, and yet it’s also the third that is probably the most well known.*
The first story is that of the oldest son of the family, Roger, and his wife May. Roger works for the Military Intelligence and is gone constantly. He and May grew up together and always knew they’d get married, but after eight years of marriage, May realizes that it was companionship and not love, familiarity and not feeling, that she entered the marriage with. The two are practically brother and sister, with no passion between them at all, not even at the beginning of their relationship. And now May has fallen in love with another man and wants to divorce Roger.
Maugham explores this theme a LOT in his books, but both May and Roger transcend the normal attributes that Maugham gives to his characters in this situation. At first Roger seems like a bumbling, oblivious sort of guy, easy-going but not demonstrative. He could have been carbon-copied from Edward Craddock in Mrs. Craddock. But then, he turns out to be different. He has an extremely intelligent character, crafty and underhanded in dealing with spies in the MI office, charming when he needs to be to gain someone’s trust, and really devoted to his wife, even if not in the way she needs. May is different as well. She is not passionate or hysterical, but logical, calm, and really wants to do the right thing. She doesn’t cheat on her husband, but instead acknowledges her love for this new person and wants to talk to her husband before she acts on her feelings at all. It ends up being one of those situations of two people who simply aren’t right for each other, even if they care about each other a lot. It was really fascinating to watch their story unfold.
The second story has to do with Roger’s younger brother Jim, a college-aged boy who is a conscientious objector. Their family has always been military – fathers, grandfathers, husbands, sons, everyone – and Jim’s refusal to go into war is something that shocks everyone. He is willing to go to work for England, taking the place of soldiers who have left their jobs to go to war, but he says he can not in good conscience kill another person. He’s a pacifist and believes war will lead only to bad things. This was not a very popular viewpoint at the time, and Jim endures ridicule, discrimination, and rejection.
His family, however, is extremely close-knit. It reminds me a lot of my family, honestly, the way all the siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles are all so close we might have grown up together in the same household. The bond I have with my cousins, for instance, is so strong I can’t even imagine losing one of them. It would be like losing part of myself. Jim’s family is the same way. No one in the family agrees with him, but they try not to hurt him with their pain and anger. They can’t understand him, and they avoid the subject whenever possible, but they all do as his mother says:
You’re expected to treat him as my dearly loved son. The laws of England give him the right to do what he feels is his duty. No one in my family shall blame him. I will allow none of you by anything you say or anything you do to hurt him.
All of this was accompanied by some interesting information about conscientious objectors in early 1940s England. It was a really fascinating thing to read about.
But then there came the third plot. I won’t say much about it, because it would involve a major spoiler (the above plots aren’t spoilers – they’re there from the beginning). What I will say is that it was about a spy, and far more heavily focused on the war and the tension between England and Germany. This could have been good, especially the tension part, but instead, all the other plotlines fell apart in all this. Roger and May both started doing things that were out of character and a little silly. Jim’s mother starts insulting him for no reason. The spy once had a specific personality but then changed completely near the end of the book. Jim does some things that are completely contrary to his world view. Roger’s sister Jane, who is always a gaudy, silly creature, turns into the worst kind of farce, to the point of being insulting to women in general. The whole thing just falls apart, as if Maugham set up this beautiful story and then just didn’t know where to take it, or decided to write a different story instead. How frustrating.
I love Maugham, but this is not one of his better books. The first half is gorgeous, beautiful, wonderful, and if it had gone in a completely different direction that second half, it would have been so much better. But it didn’t, so I’m left slightly disappointed. I’m still glad I found and read the book, though, and I’m definitely keeping my copy (an original hardback first edition printing, I believe, found at a library sale for 50 cents). The first half was beautiful enough for me to still want to keep it! But I do wish the second half had been better.
*As I was looking for images for this book, I discovered there was a 1944 movie with Veronica Lake that focuses on the spy plotline. Interesting! I think I’ll have to check that one out. Assuming I can find it, as it’s not on Netflix or at my library. Sigh.