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,

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2 thoughts on “Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher

  1. Pingback: Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation (Uncorrected Proof) « Jorie's Reads

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