I was in love with the person who recommended me this book. And so when I realized that it was a book largely about a character obsessively in the throes of the first great love of his life, the experience of reading it began to resemble drunkenly meandering through a maze that became a hall of mirrors. I had to stop about 1/3 through and return six months later because of the rawness of the characters' experiences.
In the same way that it can be hard to articulate exactly what makes you love a person, the same is often true about the books I love most. They contain something ineffable, something beyond the sum of their parts. What I can say is that Maugham is writing out of his soul here and baring it to the world in black and white ink. And he's doing it while being remarkably insightful and expressive, drawing characters whose inner landscapes are as richly described as Steinbeck might rhapsodize about the Salinas Valley. As Philip moves through different cities, classes, and acquaintances, each person illuminates some new understanding about the world. That this bildungsroman is structured with its main character coming to understand the world by observing his reflection in the people (and books) around him is unique among the coming-of-age stories I've read. Often the conceit seems to be that maturity is developed through the character reacting and changing in response to an unusually trying crisis, and he learns the lessons either in isolation or at the feet of a particular sage. Philip's path is more recognizable to me, and seeing him go through it provided a reciprocal learning experience.
The outstanding question that I will revisit when I reread this book sometime later is whether Maugham's thesis is true: is Philip doomed to either endure the agony of either unrequited love or the pallidness of mere affection? Regardless of the answer to this question, it is a story excellently told, masterfully drawn, and rich in genuine feeling.