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.)

Author Bio 
Where—Hong Kong, China
Education—Harvard University
Currently—lives in Hong Kong

Janice Y. K. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong and graduated from Harvard College. A former features editor at Elle and Mirabella magazines, she currently lives in Hong Kong with her husband and children. (From the publisher.)

Janice Lee was born in Hong Kong to Korean parents and lived there until she was fifteen, attending the international school. She then left for boarding school in New Hampshire, where she learned the true meaning of winter.

From there, she moved south to Cambridge, MA, where she spent four years at Harvard, developing a taste for excellent coffee, Au Bon Pain pastries, and staying up all night, sometimes indulging in all three at the same time. She also pleased her parents by meeting, on the very first day of school, the man who would become her husband.

After graduating with a degree in English and American Literature and Language, she relocated down to New York where she got her first post-college job fetching coffee as an assistant to the beauty editor at Elle magazine. After a few months booking massages learning about the cosmetics industry, she heard about a job in the features section and was able to switch departments and return to her true roots, being happily inundated with books on a daily basis.

She then moved to Mirabella magazine where she did more of the same. As much as she enjoyed her job, she eventually came to realize that if she stayed on this career track, she would have no time to write her own book, something that had been a goal of hers since elementary school. Taking a deep breath, she quit to freelance, think about writing, and eventually ended up at the Hunter College MFA Program, which at the time was headed up by the wonderful Chang-Rae Lee. She spent most of her time in grad school writing short stories, some of which got published, but most of which are still languishing in various states of completion on her computer.

She was about to graduate with no definite plans when she received a letter from Yaddo, the artists’ colony, saying that her application for a summer residency had been approved. She also found out she was pregnant with her first child.

At Yaddo, she started to organize her thoughts into what would become The Piano Teacher. After she had her first child, she put away the book for a year, adjusting to her new life as a mother. Then she had another child and picked it up again. Then she moved to Hong Kong. When she found out she was pregnant with her third and fourth (twins!) she had all the incentive she needed to finish the book, seeing as how she might not have any time to do anything ever again.

Five years after she started it, she had a good first draft and sold The Piano Teacher two months before she gave birth to the twins. When she told her mother she had sold her first novel, her mother asked whether Janice's husband had been the buyer. Really. (From the author's website.)

Book Review
The Piano Teacher is laced with intrigue concerning a hoard of Chinese artifacts called the Crown Collection that went missing during the war (like the artworks owned by the real-life Hong Kong businessman Paul Chater). But while the inevitable "who did what and when and why" that dominates the last third of the novel is satisfying because it answers all those questions, readers will be more enthralled by Lee's depiction of Will's relationships with his two lovers—"Claire, with her blond and familiar femininity, English rose to Trudy's exotic scorpion"—and the unsparing way Lee unravels them.
Lisa Fugard - New York Times

There is something altogether haunting here. Perhaps it's the way the story advances, peeling its way from layer to layer until the truth of each character lies bare. Perhaps it's the way Lee shows us that war can make monsters of us all. Most memorably, however, it's her portrait of Hong Kong, which having witnessed so much cupidity, moves on with splendid indifference. Like a piano under different fingers. Or a siren with another song.
Marie Arana - Washington Post

Evocative, poignant and skillfully crafted, The Piano Teacher is more than an epic tale of war and a tangled, tortured love story. It is the kind of novel one consumes in great, greedy gulps, pausing (grudgingly) only when absolutely necessary.... If we measure the skill of a fiction writer by her ability to create characters and atmosphere so effortlessly real, so alive on the page, that the reader feels a sense of participatory anxiety—as if the act of reading gives one the power to somehow influence the outcome of purely imaginary events—then Lee should be counted among the very best in recent memory.
Chicago Tribune

The novel is sustained by elegant prose and a terrific sense of place. As Graham Greene evoked Vietnam in The Quiet American, Lee, born and raised in Hong Kong long after the war, captures the city as it was during World War II, its glittering veneer barely masking the panic and corruption beneath.
Miami Herald

This cinematic tale of two love affairs in mid-century Hong Kong shows colonial pretensions tainted by wartime truths. Will Truesdale, a rootless, handsome Briton, arrives in the colony in 1941, and is swept up by Trudy Liang, the blithe and glamorous daughter of a Shanghai millionaire and a Portuguese beauty. They quickly become inseparable, their days spent in a whirl of parties and champagne, but when the Japanese invade, Will is interned and Trudy resorts to increasingly Faustian methods to survive. After the war, Claire Pendleton, the naive wife of a British civil servant, arrives. She begins giving piano lessons to the daughter of a rich Chinese couple, and falls in love with their wounded and inscrutable driver: Will. Lee unfolds each story, and flits between them, with the brisk grace and discretion of the society she describes a world in which horrors are adumbrated but seldom told.
The New Yorker

Lee has created the sort of interesting, complex characters, especially in Trudy, that drive a rich and intimate look at what happens to people under extraordinary circumstances. —Carolyn Kubisz

(Starred review) Former Elle editor Lee delivers a standout debut dealing with the rigors of love and survival during a time of war, and the consequences of choices made under duress. Claire Pendleton, newly married and arrived in Hong Kong in 1952, finds work giving piano lessons to the daughter of Melody and Victor Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple. While the girl is less than interested in music, the Chens' flinty British expat driver, Will Truesdale, is certainly interested in Claire, and vice versa. Their fast-blossoming affair is juxtaposed against a plot line beginning in 1941 when Will gets swept up by the beautiful and tempestuous Trudy Liang, and then follows through his life during the Japanese occupation. As Claire and Will's affair becomes common knowledge, so do the specifics of Will's murky past, Trudy's motivations and Victor's role in past events. The rippling of past actions through to the present lends the narrative layers of intrigue and more than a few unexpected twists. Lee covers a little-known time in Chinese history without melodrama, and deconstructs without judgment the choices people make in order to live one more day under torturous circumstances.
Publishers Weekly

In 1952 Hong Kong, Claire Pendleton, newly married to a bland postwar British government official, lucks into a job as piano teacher to the untalented young daughter of the powerful and wealthy Victor and Melody Chen. It's not long before she enters into a passionate, albeit emotionally thwarted affair with the Chens' driver, Will Truesdale. Lee then takes her readers back to 1941 Hong Kong, where Will's fiery love affair with the mysterious, fearless, provocative Trudy Liang (her mother was Portuguese, her father from Shanghai) dominates the run-up to disaster. In her fiction debut, Lee uses the snobbish insulation of British high society in Hong Kong to show the unraveling of a way of life that implodes with the invasion of the Japanese during World War II. Thrust from privilege into imprisonment virtually overnight, Lee's characters are caught up in the intrigue and collusion that were part of wartime survival. Her adept pacing slowly exposes the inevitability of tragedy that engulfs her characters. Highly recommended.
Beth E. Andersen - Library Journal

Discussion Questions 
1. Why does Claire steal from the Chens? Why does she stop doing it?

2. Part of Claire’s attraction to Will is that he allows her to be someone different than she had always been. Have you ever been drawn to a person or a situation because it offered you the opportunity to reinvent yourself?

3. The amahs are a steady but silent presence throughout the book. Imagine Trudy and Will’s relationship and then Claire and Will’s affair from their point of view and discuss.

4. Trudy was initially drawn to Will because of his quiet equanimity and Will to Claire because of her innocence. Yet those are precisely the qualities each loses in the course of their love affairs. What does this say about the nature of these relationships? Would Will have been attracted to a woman like Claire before Trudy?

5. What is the irony behind Claire’s adoration of the young Princess Elizabeth?

6. Were Dominick and Trudy guilty of collaboration, or were they simply trying to survive? Do their circumstances absolve them of their actions?

7. Mary, Tobias’s mother, and one of Will’s fellow prisoners in Stanley, does not take advantage of her job in the kitchen to steal more food for her son. Yet she prostitutes herself to preserve him. Is Tobias’s physical survival worth the psychological damage she’s inflicting?

8. Did Trudy give her emerald ring and Locket to Melody? How much did Melody really know?

9. How do Ned Young’s experiences parallel Trudy’s?

10. Did Will fail Trudy? Was his decision to remain in Stanley rather than be with her on the outside—as he believes—an act of cowardice?

11. Would Locket be better off knowing the truth about her parentage?

12. What would happen if Trudy somehow survived and came back to Will? Could they find happiness together?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

top of page (summary)


Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2018