The story is narrated by William Ashendon, a young writer who has been approached by another writer, Alroy Kear, for help documenting the life story of celebrated author, Edward Driffield. Ashendon had known Driffield and his first wife, Rosie, when he was a boy and then again years later when he was a medical student.
I love Maugham's writing, if not his stories quite so much. Of Human Bondage had wonderful writing but Phillip Carey nearly drove me crazy for three quarters of the book. I liked The Painted Veil's story better, and now this one is my favourite so far, but the writing is impeccable in all of them. He has a wonderful talent, with a gift for irony - it's perfection really. Listen to this: "Most of us, when we do a caddish thing, harbour resentment against the person we have done it to, but Roy's heart, always in the right place, never permitted him such pettiness. He could use a man very shabbily without afterward bearing the slightest ill will." If you're not paying attention, you could read that and move on thinking what a great guy Roy is.
The book pokes fun at the public image authors try to create and maintain. Driffield's widow, his second wife, is commissioning his life story and has left Lear with the awkward task of white-washing his past. Edward and Rosie had not always behaved with integrity, but that could be covered up quite easily. For the biographer, the real problem was Rosie.
Rosie loved life, and men. Lots of men. She was known to have been promiscuous and in her younger years had worked as a bar maid, a fact that horrified everyone from Ashendon's parents who didn't want their son subject to such vulgarity, to the second Mrs. Druffield who was trying to give her late husband a reputation he'd never actually earned. On the back cover of the book, the reviewer praises Rosie as one of the most delightful female characters of the 20th century. I think she's interesting but I never did manage to see in her whatever it was he saw.
The author takes a few clever jabs at pretentious literary critics, as in this passage: "They upbraided the public because it could not see that here was a great writer and since the easiest way to exalt one man is to kick another in the pants, they reviled freely all the novelists whose contemporary fame obscured his." In another instance, the critics had made much of a volume of poetry written by an author whose subsequent work did not earn him the brilliant career they predicted..."and they were determined that he should suffer for their error."
People have suggested that Driffield was meant to represent Thomas Hardy, but Maugham was adamant in denying it. Of course once I read that I couldn't help but look for similarities in Rosie and Tess and there are some, but you could probably say that about any two female characters in any two books. Driffield may not have been Hardy, but in what I read it was hinted at so many times that in my mind he always will be. The power of suggestion seems to always win.
Maugham's writing is just wonderful. It's witty and vivid and eloquent and I could go on and on but I won't. Read "Cakes and Ale". It gets a solid 8 out of 10 from me.