For decades, all of London and much of Europe have celebrated the talent of actress Julia Lambert. Now in her 40’s, she lives a comfortable life: afternoon massages between matinees and evening performances in the theatre her husband and manager owns. She dines and dances with society, acting friendly and interested when she is sincerely bored. All of her world is a stage: she feigns romance with her husband, interest with her son; only when she is playing the part of a character on stage is she content. Until she meets the quiet young accountant come to settle the theatre’s books. Her relationship with him (false at first, and then helplessly passionate, real) compromises all her success. Maugham lays bare the reality of acting and the unreality of true life, exemplifying what should happen when the two merge and reverse.
The story is not suspenseful, not dull. Theatre isn’t about an affair between a successful actress and an unknown young man–the book is about the internal affairs of Julia’s heart, how her self-security is suddenly interrupted, and she must search for her true self among all of the roles she’s successfully portrayed. Her son confronts her: To me you act the part of the fond, indulgent, celebrated mother. You don’t exist, you’re only the innumerable parts you’ve played. I’ve often wondered if there was ever a you or if you were never anything more than a vehicle for all these other people that you’ve pretended to be. When I’ve seen you go into an empty room I’ve sometimes wanted to open the door suddenly, but I’ve been afraid to in case I found nobody there.
Little gems of truth made the book worth reading: She had often felt that her talent, genius the critics called it, but that was a very grand word, her gift, if you like, was not really herself, not even part of her, but something outside that used her, Julia Lambert, the woman, in order to express itself. Despite all of the false scenarios the protagonist puts herself through, Maugham’s novel is very honest.