Of Human Bondage is quintessential Somerset Maugham and is, or should be, one of the classics of English literature. Don't be put off by its length; you will only wish it were longer by the time you finish it!
The book is set in the last decades of the nineteenth century and, apparently partly autobiographical, it tells of the growing up of a young orphan, his apprenticeship of art and then medicine and of course his painful tuition in love. Philip, the hero, is initially raised in an English country vicarage, the life of which is described with fetching authenticity. In fact, its realistic evocation of exotic settings, a typical feature of Maugham's writing, is one of the novel's undoubted attractions. Philip moves on to Heidelberg, then Paris among a community of artistic hopefuls and painting schools, and back to turn-of-the-century London, with its contrast of glitter and squalor, its top hats and workers' dorms, music halls and stockbrokers' clubs. There he becomes trapped in a tragic and sordid love affair that becomes so compulsive it threatens to enslave him.
If the hero's unrequited obsession is alluded to in the title, however, Of Human Bondage has a broader scope. Indeed it is - well - about life; but if that sounds pretentious, this is probably one of few works that can genuinely make that claim. The cast of characters is impressive in being both broad and convincing, and sufficient plot is granted each so that they can come alive. True, Maugham's sometimes acid, always witty and insightful style is at its best when portraying human faults. Purely positive archetypes are given briefer and just a little less compelling descriptions; but perhaps that is just reality. Few novels are able to bring forth such a variety of places, people and situations so convincingly and with such depth. Ultimately the test for this sweeping portrait is that one feels one has stood in it many more times than once, so strong is the association with its protagonists. And if you have occasionally fallen for an idiot who wasn't interested in you, then reading this may provide a cure.