Piano Teacher (Lee)

The Piano Teacher 
Janice Y.K. Lee, 2009
Penguin Group USA
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143116530

Demure and unsophisticated, Claire Pendleton is the quintessential English rose when she first arrives in Hong Kong.

The year is 1952 and, as the wife of an English engineer overseeing the construction of a new reservoir, Claire seems destined to lead an insulated life, socializing with the other expatriate wives.

But when she takes a position giving piano lessons to Locket Chen, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful local family, she enters a world of deceit, passion, and dark secrets that will deeply shock Hong Kong society and change Claire forever.

At first glance, the British colony seems to have recovered from the ravages of the Japanese occupation a decade earlier. Yet memories and reminders of those brutal times are everywhere. The British themselves are divided into recent arrivals, like Claire, and those who survived the war, like Will Truesdale, the Chens’ English chauffeur. Will is handsome and darkly charismatic—everything Claire’s husband, the stolid and reliable Martin, is not.

After meeting Will at a cocktail party, Claire begins to see him everywhere. In Will’s company, she finally feels alive but she is infuriated by his aloofness. He seems to understand her better than anyone else, but he reveals little of his own past or emotions.

His gaunt figure and pronounced limp are grim souvenirs from the Japanese invaders and the time he was imprisoned in Stanley, the squalid prison camp where most British subjects—including women and children—spent the war abused, humiliated, and virtually starved. What little Claire learns is in fragments and often from gossip rather than Will himself.

Unexpectedly, Claire receives hints about Will’s former lover from two unlikely sources—Locket’s father, Victor, and Edwina Storch, a matriarch of the expatriate community. Trudy Liang, it seems, was everything Claire is not—a worldly-wise Eurasian heiress celebrated for her dazzling beauty and willful personality who disappeared mysteriously at the end of the war.

Claire spies a photograph capturing a night of revelry shared by Will, Trudy, her employers, and an unknown Chinese man. How, she wonders, did Will come to be the Chens’ employee after having been so intimate with them socially?

As her affair with Will unfolds, Claire realizes that Trudy’s memory is a greater rival for his affections than any flesh-and-blood woman. But the past holds others in its thrall as well and—as the coronation of Britain’s young Princess Elizabeth nears—murmurs about the Crown Collection, which had gone missing during the war, grow into angry accusations of collaboration with the Japanese occupiers.

Suddenly, Claire finds herself an unwitting pawn in a revenge plot when her affair with Will is manipulated to expose a trove of devastating secrets.

The Piano Teacher is a spellbinding tale of human frailty and passions reminiscent of The English Patient and Empire of the Sun. In alternating narratives, debut novelist Janice Y. K. Lee, brilliantly evokes Trudy, Will, and Claire’s tragic love triangle against the relative calm of 1950s Hong Kong and the glittering pre-war era’s decline into chaos and ruin. (From the publisher.)

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