I, like many others, saw the movie first (I am a huge Edward Norton fan!). I have come to learn that when I see a movie first that when I pick up the book I have to look at the book as it is completely separate from the movie, and infact is not tied to the movie at all - this is the only way I am able to give a book a fighting chance. That being said, I loved this book (and the movie too). It was actually nice to envision the actors from the movie, in terms of physical looks, while reading the book.
Kitty is spoiled rotten, having a life of great privileged. Kitty also prides herself as being very independent, especially from her mother's 'demands' and 'disappointments' that she is not married yet. To get away from her 'overbearing' mother (at least overbearing in Kitty's opinion) she marries Walter Fane, who she does not love and barely likes. Upon their marriage they move straight to China as Walter's work as a scientist is. Bored in China, Kitty meets Charles Townsend, a politician; soon they start a torid love affair! Despite Kitty's new found happiness, Walter finds out. In an attempt to tear Kitty away from Charles Townsend, he uproots them to the center of a Cholera epidemic. Bitter against Walter, Kitty finds her new life unbearable. However, in time she is able to see another side of Walter as he works to save the town's infested water supply and many lives.
I would not say that this is a book about a love affair (as Kitty and Charles Townsend have), but more of self discover, as Kitty finds who she is and what she is capable of bearing. All the characters are very well written. I loved and hated Kitty all at the same time; I felt sorry for Walter; and I hated and like Charles Townsend. The plot unfolds expectantly, as W. Somerset Maugham makes you as in the end: "What and who is really important to us and in life?"