I'm way behind, I just finished this. My Shelfari review, first:
Perhaps knowing Maugham is considered a "classic" writer, I had too high expectations, but I really could not get into The Painted Veil. I found the story unrealistic, and the "orientalist" background, and the unquestioning acceptance of British colonialism, were jarring to the modern sensibility.
The heroine Kitty (at the beginning) and her mother are shallow, vain, predatory, ambitious women looking for husbands who will give them the social status to shine in "society". This part of the book reminded me of Wharton, especially in The Custom of the Country, but with less humor and none of the social depth, so essentially it just seemed rather misogynistic. After missing her chances by being too particular, Kitty in desperation (to be married before her sister) agrees to marry Walter Fane.
Walter is the exact opposite of Kitty; brilliant, serious, but utterly uninterested in the kind of social life that Kitty lives for. In fact, he is almost clinically abnormal in his lack of social skills; I wondered if he was modeled on someone with Asperger's Syndrome. The main mystery of the book to me was why he ever fell in love with Kitty: --- "I had no illusions about you," he said. "I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. I knew that you were second-rate. But I loved you."--- Huh?
In any case, they get married and move to Hong Kong, where Walter is the bacteriologist to the British Colonial Administration. Kitty quickly realizes that as Walter's wife she will not be the star of society, and comes to resent him. She has an affair with the popular Charlie, who she thinks is madly in love with her, although it is obvious to the reader that he is just having a fling. When Walter discovers them, he naturally drops her to avoid scandal.
Then Walter decides to kill her by taking her to a city where there is a cholera epidemic. She feels guilty about not loving him, and tries to get him to forgive her. (She knows he is trying to kill her.)
To feel useful, she begins working in a convent for Chinese orphan girls, whom she forces herself to consider human. She begins to become more mature and less superficial. This part of the book, if you could separate it from the rest, might make a moderately good YA novel on the theme of "self-centered girl learns to become a caring person." But even this part is cliched and unrealistic, with the convent full of idealized nuns, all of them Mother Teresas.
In the end, it is Walter who dies of cholera, and she returns to England, where her mother has just died. The book ends with her making a feminist statement about raising her unborn daughter to be an independent woman.
On the questions that have been raised here, I don't really have too much to add.
I think Maugham does intend Kitty to be really changed; but whether this is realistic or not is another question. I think the whole book is pretty unrealistic.
I can't agree with the comments on Maugham's depiction of Hong Kong and China. They seem to me to be just "orientalism" in the sense of Edward Said. Consider this quotation: "Kitty had never paid anything but passing and somewhat contemptuous attention to the China in which fate had thrown her. It was not done in her set. Now she seemed on a sudden to have an inkling of something remote and mysterious. Here was the East, immemorial, dark and inscrutable." Note that none of the Chinese characters is shown in any depth; the story takes place entirely among the whites (although the Chinese characters are present and could have been developed if Maugham had had any interest in depicting China, rather than using it as an exotic background where improbable events could happen.)