This is a perspicacious study of characters whose fates are indubitably shaped by their respective aspirations, natural tendencies and outlook on life. Maugham doubles as the narrator and as one of the cast (a writer), and through his narration, readers are engaged with the intertwining stories of the various characters, who move between post-WWI Europe, America and India.
Isabel and Larry, two young American lovers who have known each other from childhood, discover the unbridgeable gulf between them before it’s too late, and break off their engagement. With her eyes set upon having an easy and well-provided-for life, Isabel marries a local wealthy heir, Gray, who adores her, but in her heart she can’t let go of penniless Larry. Larry, having witnessed his best friend killed in war trying to save him, goes off on a prolonged knapsack journey to Europe and then to India in quest for the true meaning of life. He has no regrets about breaking off with Isabel and gets on with living life his own way, aiming at cultivating his intellect and at self-perfection. When he decides to marry a childhood friend in an attempt to save her from a downward spiral, Isabel takes it upon herself to sabotage the intended union. Only when confronted by Maugham much later is she forced to confess her malice in the act.
Isabel’s uncle Elliott is a narcissistic socialite who hobnobs with the European aristocracy but is kindly disposed towards his sister and niece. He often dispenses meddling advice to people he is fond of, thinking he is doing them a great favor. In his eyes, Larry is all wrong for Isabel, because he is against making something out of himself. He thinks Gray is the obvious choice as a spouse for Isabel. Later, when Gray and Isabel are ruined by the 1929 stock market crash, Elliott lends them a generous helping hand. But at his senile age, even in his sickbed, Elliott still gets upset at not having been invited to a glamorous party.
I love how Maugham imparts his own wisdom about the philosophy of living through Larry in this richly drawn novel. This is a passage I like:
Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is of the essence of existence, one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy.
Overall, it is a realistic and thought-provoking story masterfully told, and is the best by Maugham I’ve read so far. I’m giving it 5 deserving stars!