what would you recommend?
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Thank you for an interesting question. It brings me back to my first introduction to Maugham and reminds me as to what of Maugham appealed most early on---to the extent that through the years he has remained one of my favorite writers.
Maugham first impressed me as a top-notch story teller who could spin out a tale with few, but potent, words and create scenes of realistic detail. He also focused on the inner lives of his characters and how these traits played out in their interactions. His themes, to me, focused on hypocrisy, control, social class structure and isolation. All these things are showcased in the short story "Rain" which is probably his best known story known story.
As a first novel, I would suggest Cakes and Ale as it is not too long and expands on the above themes but adds another Maugam device----he bases his characters on people he knows---or at least he tantalizes the reader to identify these characters as real people e.g. Driffel and his first wife=Thomas Hardy and his first wife, Roy Kear=Hugh Walpole.
Then I might say, read "The Outstation" to give a first reader a taste of the way Maugham deals with individual isolation and the catastrophe of psychological dis-connect set in a colonial atmosphere.
All of the above books are readily available and easily obtainable.
I love The Outstation; it's not only in my top ten short stories by Maugham, but in the top three or so.