Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher

Lee, J. Y. K. (2008). The piano teacher: A novel. New York: Viking Penguin. 978-0-00-728638-6

I noticed The Piano Teacher numerous times while flipping through Publisher’s Weekly while at work. However, I didn’t have enough interest in it until I saw the book on Amazon’s “People who bought this also bought. . .” for another book I recently read (see Marie Arana’s Lima Nights) . Sure enough, this book was on the shelf at the library where I work.

Lee tells at least two stories. Initially, she begins with young English wife Claire Pendleton in 1952. She and her husband, Martin, come to Hong Kong due to his job. With nothing else better to do, Claire seeks employment as a piano teacher. When she’s hired by the wealthy Chen family to teach their daughter Locket to play piano, Claire becomes infatuated with the Hong Kong expatriate scene as well as developing kleptomania. Through all of this, she becomes the paramour of Will Truesdale, an English expatriate with numerous skeletons in the closet.

The other story Lee tells begins in 1941 Hong Kong with the dashing newcomer Will Truesdale and his tempestuous affair with Trudy Liang, an exquisite daughter of a wealthy Chinese man and a Portuguese beauty. Will sinks into Trudy’s glib  lifestyle – parties, dinners with her efeet cousin Dominick, parties with her cousin Melody Chen, going to the beach, etc. When there are nervous rumblings on the eve of World War II, Trudy appears ambivalent and Will plays along until Japan invades.

Lee alternates between these two story lines, ultimately showing us how the past transgressions color Claire’s present. Characters face all sorts of trials and decisions, costing them all in the end.

I found Lee’s writing quite colorful and even transcendent. I especially wanted to climb into my time machine and check out pre-World War II Hong Kong.  While I didn’t like most of the characters, I found them very human and multidimensional.

I also liked how Lee confronts issues of race, class, and gender. Through Trudy, she presents us with the reality of being “not Asian”, “not Caucasian,” but simply both. Her wealthy Chinese father’s status opens doors for his daughter. I was impressed also by Claire’s awakening to this as well. Here we have 2008 values quelled in a novel about 1940s-1950s Hong Kong.

Still, I didn’t like the construction of the story much. I felt as though I was bounced around in the beginning, stuck in the middle, and rolled around like a pingpong ball in the end.  I do recall that this is Lee’s first novel and I’m sure she’ll overcome this in future novels.

As a grammar geek, I must comment on my chagrin upon reading Trudy utter the non-word “anyways.”

Two out of Five Pearls

Places: Hong Kong, Macau, China, Japan, The United Kingdom, India

Word Bank: ablution, Amah, anodyne, avuncular, collusive, consular, gendarmerie, guipure, inculcated, lissome, OBE, qipao, prescient, sotto voce, Tai Tais, venal,

For more on Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher:

Marie Arana’s Lima Nights

Arana, M. (2009). Lima nights: A novel. New York: Dial Press. 978-0-385-34258-2

I happened to read part of a short book review in O Magazine on Lima Nights. My interest piqued by what I read and the author’s name (similar to that of a friend) led to seeking out the book at my local library branch. Fortunately, I found the book on the new fiction shelf.

Carlos Bluhm, an upper-class man of German descent, lives in Lima, Peru in 1986. By all outward appearances, Bluhm leads a charmed life. He’s married to the refined Sophie, also German, and has two sons. He and his best friends have a strong bond. Life seems goods. When visiting a tango bar in a bad part of town, he meets the young, indigenous Maria Fernandez. This sixteen year old chola turns Bluhm’s world upside down. Bluhm and Maria fall into an illicit affair which alters both their realities. Alternating between the views of Bluhm and Maria in 1986 and 2006, the reader sees how their lives unravel and knit together.

The unsatisfactory plot finds salvation in Arana’s style. Her clinical, psychological understanding of the characters as well as her clearly detailed scenes transform the pages into film. Also, Arana’s straightforward way of describing character prejudices between Caucasian and Pre-Columbian races transcends. Ultimately, she tells a story of doing the right thing. The complexity of Bluhm and Maria, in particular, amaze. These characters are multifaceted and breathing! Bluhm is described by a friend as the most lacking in racism. Yet, Bluhm knows otherwise. He knows better than to pursue a relationship with Maria but goes forth. When the time comes to take responsibility, he actually does.

However, this plot made me unhappy. Why? I saw a lot of wounded souls in this book and very little happiness. While only around 250 pages, this was no light read. I’m willing to give Arana another chance but this was not my favorite book.

Three Out of Five Pearls

Word Bank: bandoneón, butifarras, ceviche, chifa, Cholafraulein, habitués, hacienda, hosta lilies, jitneymestiza, Mutti, Peugeot, Pilsener, pisco, Riesling, Schätze, schnapps, Shining Path, spaetzle, telenovela, Teuton, vidente


Places: Lima, Peru; Germany; Switzerland; Amazon Rainforest

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