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[200] The Piano Teacher – Janice Y.K. Lee

pianoteacher“They’re supporting that Wong Chang Wai [see Lust Caution by Eileen Chang] chap, who the Japanese installed in China. I’ve heard Dominick has been seen with a lot of that crowd. And Victor Chen, of course, thick as thieves with whoever can help him. Rumor has it that he had the Japanese consulate over the dinner last week.” [77]

The Piano Teacher captures the interplay between the East and West in Hong Kong over a period of instability in the 1940s on the verge of war. After the fall of Canton about three months earlier, the Imperial Japanese Army encroached the British colony for three years and eight months. When Will Truesdale arrived in 1942, the city was already thriving in a diversity of trades and commercial bustles, which became the inevitable source of British superiority. The Chinese, who were stereotypically known to foreigners as an unscrupulous, conniving people, generally filled the subservient jobs.

They [the Brits] live in grand style on the Peak, where Angeline’s presence [Chinese woman who married a Brit] causes some discomfort as Chinese are supposed to have permission to live there, except for one family who is so unfathomably rich they are exempt from the rules. [31]

Not too long after he had settled down, he fell headlong in a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, an Eurasian socialite who had been the consistent target of rumors and scandals. But owing to the family’s social status (Hong Kong is all about status and pleasantry even today), everybody, expatriates and locals alike, hobnobbed with her. But soon the Japanese invasion threatened their love affair, which proved to be ephemeral. As the Japanese began to collect civilian enemies and Will Truesdale was thrown into Stanley Prison, Trudy proved herself indispensable to the Japanese commander Otsubo, who believed she would secure the information on where the Crown Collection (a collection of priceless art pieces shipped from England to most colonies, and apparently the Hong Kong collection was impressive) was secreted away before the belligerency. Obviously both the Communists and the Japanese were preying on these pieces— centuries old, inestimable in value and politically sensitive. Unbeknownst to a series of conspiracy and sabotage of a family member, Trudy was coiled in the mission with the Japs for the sake of her love for Will.

Ten years later, in 1952, Claire Pendleton came to Hong Kong with her husband and was hired by a wealthy Chen family as their daughter’s piano teacher. A provincial newlywed who quickly acclimatized to the colony’s natural and social faculty, the heady social life quickly enthralled her. She began an affair with Will, who was now the Chens’ chauffeur. As her husband receded so far from her life, Claire plunged deeper into the a devastating past that had enslaved Will and rendered him emotionally detached.

You always tell me to be strong, but you’re never strong yourself. When we first met, you told me I should take the opportunity to become something else, to transcend what I had been given. You can’t do that yourself. You’re mired in the past and determined to be unhappy. [308]

This debut is very well-researched, citing the important historical facts that revolved around inveigling of priceless collection for personal gain. The destiny of Trudy Liang is both haunting and poignant, on the account that mixed breed at the time was usually not accepted as equal. Nobody but Will Truesdale had ever loved her and yet she had demonstrated the rigor of love and loyalty at a time when survival seemed to be what self-interested dictated. Trudy valued her love for Will, but Will valued the well-being of his fellow Englishmen in the prison. Whereas other people, those who considered most revered and elite, were the thickest of thieves who betrayed everyone.

They loved my money or the way I looked, or even the way I talked, because it made them think I was a certain way. Or my father, he loved me because he had to. My mother loved me but then she left. No one loved me for me, or thought I was more than a good distraction at a party. [271]

The Piano Teacher transports readers to a time when everyone was confronted with impossible choices: between love and safety, between fortune and family. The book ponders at how we all make choices and how important we have to stand by the choices and acknowledge responsibility if we find ourselves on the wrong end. The way Lee delineates the underlying tension between foreigners and locals, the unspoken expectation and etiquette in these social relationships is just so spot on.

336 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

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21 Responses

  1. great review. this is one that I have been looking to get my hands on.

  2. Excellent review! I enjoyed reading the book and the alternative narratives make the actions and the love affair more tight and intriguing. I wish Janice Lee would write more about Trudy Liang who is the most amazing character in the book.

  3. Matt,

    What a wonderful, thoughtful review. I’m new to your site and must say I am really impressed by the care and passion behind your selections and writing.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.


  4. Sorry — Matthew!

  5. Matthew – The staff at an indie bookstore in Sanibel, Fla. was recommending this when we visited last winter. Wish I’d taken their advice…
    Your review is excellent. I hope to read the book soon.

  6. caite:
    It’s a historical fiction, a bit of romance, and a psychological thriller. It’s one of the best debut I have read in years. 🙂

  7. John:
    The fate of trudy was resolved but I wish Lee would fill us in for more of her final days with the Japanese. And what about Will? What happens by the time he was released from prison? I do have to give Lee the credit for these amazing dialogues throughout the novel. So suggestive and yet implicit that you have to read between the lines.

  8. Larry:
    Thanks for your comment. Reading is my biggest hobby (and obsession) and I hope to use this blog as a channel to voice my opinions in the readings.

  9. JoAnn:
    I highly recommend this novel. I suppose it’s the next buzz around the book blogging community after Guernsey. 🙂

  10. […] [200] The Piano Teacher – Janice Y.K. Lee […]

  11. Can’t wait to read this one…

  12. draabe:
    You’re in for a treat. 🙂

  13. […] introduced to and thus have been reading many female authors. I recently finished and reviewed The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. […]

  14. […] 10. The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley 11. Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. The Hours, Michael Cunningham 13. The Piano Teacher, Janice Y.K. Lee 14. Little Bee: A Novel, Chris Cleave 15. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott […]

  15. […] Sticky Fifteen … on [170] Little Bee: A Novel …The Sticky Fifteen … on [200] The Piano Teacher …The Sticky Fifteen … on [195] The Hours – Michae…Melody on […]

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  17. […] (Sep 9) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (Aug 15) Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (Sep 7) The Piano Teacher, Janice Y.K. Lee (Apr 22) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt (Aug […]

  18. I’ve been wanting to read this one for awhile. Glad to see that you liked it. I hope it’s okay that I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.


  19. […] The Piano Teacher Janice Y.K. Lee The Piano Teacher transports readers to a time when everyone was confronted with impossible choices: between love and safety, between fortune and family. The book ponders at how we all make choices and how important we have to stand by the choices and acknowledge responsibility if we find ourselves on the wrong end. […]

  20. […] (1613). The newest were Shanghai Girls by Lisa See, The Writing on My Forehead by Nafisa Haji, and The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee, all three were released in 2009 and made my top […]

  21. […] Posted on August 15, 2010 by Matthew Last week at Green Apple Books my friend picked out The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee upon my recommendation. The conversation ensued a list of books set in my […]

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