on 3 December 2008
Janice Lee's portrayal of wartime and post war Hong Kong is a compelling story of love, war and betrayal. Claire, the piano teacher of the title, arrives in Hong Kong in 1952 with her new husband Martin, and quickly becomes involved with the expat community. Some of the people she meets have survived the wartime occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese and Claire begins an affair with the mysterious Will. As the book evolves, Claire finds out more about Will's background and the tragic events which took place during the occupation.
Lee does not shrink from describing the harsh realities of life under occupation and the brutality visited upon both native Chinese and foreign nationals alike. Hong Kong's experience is often forgotten but in the timescale she has used in this novel it is still a fairly raw and recent memory. One of the interesting sides to the book is the way in which so many of the characters reached various sorts of compromise in order to survive and it makes one wonder what one would do in similar circumstances.
A very moving and thought-provoking account which will no doubt appeal to many readers who are interested in the human condition and the way people react under pressure.
For a story embracing war, compromise, survival and guilt there are many characters in `The Piano Teacher' but the leading man and his two heroines dominate. They are interesting and intriguing and become totally credible within the turn of events described. `The Piano Teacher' is a love story and a historical novel, covering two main periods (1941-42 and 1952-53) skilfully interwoven plus some forward and backward glances. Author Janice Lee deals sympathetically with relationships and choices, and she steers and manipulates with incisive commentaries by the hero and heroines on each other, on additional individuals, on social groups, and on nations and nationalities. Their musing and philosophising is piercing and perceptive, and the reader is unlikely to predict outcomes.
Set in Hong Kong `The Piano Teacher' is clearly well researched and the author has in-depth knowledge of Hong Kong as a place and of its people together with cognisance of the influence of `Empire' before the Japanese invasion, internment, and the `ex-pat' situation after the Second World War. She finds easy ways of defining characters, detailing circumstances, describing scenes and discussing cultures without use of fancy or florid language. The narrative flows well and varies in tempo as appropriate to issues of love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, crime and corruption, and many more emotions and traumas. There are surprises throughout, and though the final pages reveal the unexpected, the somewhat loose ending deliberately leaves the reader thinking and wondering. I deliberately refrain from producing a précis or exposing the plot - read the novel.
I've just finished the pre-publication version of this book. I was rather wary - love story - but I have to say that I couldn't put this down. It's a romance without the dirty bits, a war story without the gruesome bits, an "Empire" story without the heavy historic bits and quite believable throughout. Set in Hong Kong before, during and just after the Japanese Occupation, the tale deals with one mans infatuation with a Eurasian woman and, subsequently, his involvement with a rather sheltered, recently married Englishwoman recently arrived (The piano teacher). An engaging, well written and pleasing book that has sufficient detail to believe that the story is real without getting bogged down in pages of detail just to make the Author feel more self important.
The writer, new to me, has worked hard on the background material but, most of all, has found a remarkably good writing style that takes the reader along at a pleasant pace. I'm really impressed and hope that she can set to writing some more (and soon please). A worthwhile and very enjoyable book. I defy anyone who buys it not to be tempted to carry on for "just one more chapter" well after bedtime!
Set in Hong Kong in the years leading up to and including the second world war, with an interspersed narrative set about ten years later, this book explores issues of nationality, patriotism, loyalty, integrity and love. Organised ostensibly around two very different women's relationships with the rather enigmatic Will Truesdale it confronts all kinds of moral dilemmas but in a way that is integrated in and central to the story, rather than as something tacked on.
Trudy Liang is half-Chinese and half-Portugese, beautiful, vivid and apparently shallow. But her frivolity hides a deeper understanding about her own true nature as well as her place within Hong Kong society. Neither Chinese nor European she is both on the margins and yet also at the centre of a lush and expensive society. The Japanese invasion of Hong Kong forces her to choose between her dual cultures and confront who she truly is and what that might mean in a time when social niceties are stripped, by war, back to the bone.
The alternating narrative is about Claire Pendleton, a very different Englishwoman and the piano teacher of the title. Repressed, conventional, self-effacing, her experience of Hong Kong and her encounters with Will and the story of Trudy force her to also make some decisions that change the course of her life (but not in an operatic kind of way).
The chapters about the invasion are really well done, focusing on the minutiae of civilian life under invasion and occupation. Also the story of the internment camps felt fresh and new not as if the author were simply re-writing Tenko or A Town like Alice.
So overall this book surprised me, always a pleasant thing: well-written, thoughtful, intelligent and compelling. There are some flaws: the character of Will doesn't quite hang together, and the sub-plot about the Crown treasures seemed forced. But these are small quibbles and don't spoil the overall book. Recommended.
on 4 July 2013
The Piano Teacher tells the story of Claire Pendleton, a young British woman newly arrived in post-war Hong Kong in 1952 and married to the older Martin, a rather unexciting and dependable Englishman. Although Claire might have seemed destined for the typical life of the expatriate wife, she instead takes up a position with a wealthy local Chinese family as piano tutor to their young daughter, Locket. She falls in love with the Chen's chauffeur, the enigmatic and attractive Will Truesdale and they begin an affair. Still Will reveals little of himself and his past and maintains an air of aloofness that Claire fails to penetrate.
Ten years earlier when Will arrived in Hong Kong he fell passionately in love with a young Eurasian woman, Trudy Liang who seemed to just disappear at the end of the war. Will himself was imprisoned by the Japanese and still bears the scars of his imprisonment. Then there is the mystery of the Crown Collection which had gone missing during the Japanese occupation. Claire also puzzles over the possible connection between Will and the Chens as even though Will is now their chauffeur, he seems to have mixed with them socially at one stage. There are many different elements to this tale.
I thought the first part of the book a bit tedious and fragmented and not because of the two timelines, which Janice Y.K. Lee manages to interweave skillfully . The opening sentence of the novel, i.e. "It started as an accident" is intriguing and gripping and I had high hopes of a very absorbing read but Claire's kleptomania is never explored, although I imagine readers may draw their own conclusions. The most interesting and enjoyable part of the book for me was reading about Will and the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong - a subject about which I really knew very little. This part of the book is very well handled and I came to like Trudy better than any of the other characters in this story.
I struggled to feel any fondness for most of the other main characters and found I could not care less what happened to Claire Pendleton who comes across as a very insipid and meek type of woman, although she does herself feel that she perhaps blossomed and became more open while in Hong Kong; nevertheless, her affair with Will Truesdale seems totally out of character. However, the book serves to highlight the horrors and brutality of war and that in itself is an important feature of the story.
If I could have warmed to Claire I might have given this book four stars. As it is I would still recommend it to other readers as an interesting read and should they appreciate Claire so much the better!
on 18 July 2012
The author of this story was born and raised in Hong Kong and educated at Harvard. Her voice is thus authentic and believable as she colours the Hong Kong of the 1940s and 50s; before, during, and in the aftermath of WWII. There is a love affair, a mystery and a series of tragic regrets, as the story weaves between the early 40s and early 50s, the colonial residents and the native Chinese.
All the characters have their own strengths and flaws, and through this novel we are reminded that not everyone, not even good people, always do the right thing, or what will later be thought of as admirable. What becomes a regrettable decision is perhaps the only one to be considered at the time, especially under the circumstances of war.
Many of the characters struggle as they are thrown between realities - from the privileges and prosperity of colonial living, to the sorrows and horrors of the Japanese occupation, and back again to peace time, to rebuild their lives in a Hong Kong that has changed, and in many ways has not changed.
People survive - but will their consciences? The reader experiences these uncertainties just as Trudy, and Will, and others must work out for themselves just how they will survive these unfathomable times.
Lee's writing is fluid, readable and evocative of the specific place and time in history. However, there were threads within the story that didn't quite tie up for me. There were elements of intrigue which I felt the author had left dangling, and didn't exploit them fully to make for a much stronger story with bigger characters.
A number of times Will and Claire or Will and Trudy `shared a moment' that I, as the reader, didn't understand and feel privy to.
Some of the characters, who were necessary to the story, were one dimensional and I didn't feel any empathy for them.
I'm giving this book four stars because I enjoyed reading it and perhaps it accomplished what it set out to, but I think it is a good story, that could have been a great story with a tighter pulling in of the threads, and a fuller rounding off of the characters' personalities and motivations.
I did not buy this book on Amazon; I borrowed it from the library, yet it is the type of book that would normally appeal to me to download onto my Kindle, so I thought I'd leave a review here on Amazon.
on 6 May 2011
The book is set during two time periods- 1940's and 1950's Hong Kong. It begins in the 1950's and introduces us to Claire Pendleton, a young newlywed who has moved to Hong Kong with her much older husband, Martin. To help pass the time, Claire takes a position as a piano teacher to Locket, daughter of the wealthy Chinese family the Chens. Through them she meets Englishman Will Truesdale, and they begin an affair.
The story continues by moving back in time to Hong Kong, 1941 where we are properly introduced to Will and where we find out about his love for Trudy, a beautiful Eurasian woman and the consequences of this passion.
The Piano Teacher had been on my TBR pile for some time. It was recommended as being in a similar vein to the excellent Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and so I had high hopes that I would find it an excellent read.
However, to begin with, I was a little disappointed as I found the story to be too slow paced. Also when moving between the two time periods, the writing tense changed and at first this irritated me as I found it affected the flow of my reading.
Stubbornly, I persevered and am glad that I did. Looking at WWII from an Eastern perspective introduced me to facts about the war that I was unaware of. Lee's descriptions of life in a prisoner of war camp were detailed enough to give me a sense of the horrendous conditions and suffering of the prisoners without being overly graphic.
Her characters, particularly Will and Trudy, were complex and interesting and helped me to finish the book as I wanted to know what happened to them.
Other than the (in my view unnecessary) tense changes, I found I enjoyed Lee's style of writing and would be tempted to read any of her future novels.
I was a little disappointed with the ending as I seem to be with many of the books that I have read just lately, but overall I enjoyed it. In my own mind I rate a book as being either one that I loved and would definitely read again (10/10) down to one that I hated and didn't bother to finish (0/10) and would give The Piano Teacher 7/10.
on 20 February 2011
Essentially the plot of this book is split in two - pre world war two leading into the war in Hong Kong compared with post war Hong Kong. A main character links the two plots in which he has romantic liaisons with two women. The book gradually reveals the links between the two time periods through the common character of Will.
While there are two distinct time periods, really the post war section seems to serve only as a foil to reveal a few plot twists linking to the war time section. The two plot sections do not marry well at all and I believe the entire piano teacher character from the post war section could have been dispensed with (pretty worrying when she is the eponymous heroine!)There is one point (where she becomes a petty thief) where I thought the piano teacher was going to blossom into a fascinating character - but this plotline effectively just reaches a dead end.
I finished reading this book and wondered what the point of it was. The plot does not seem to be well formed. Ultimately the character of Trudy is the high point of the novel and is so well developed that she makes everyone else (and even the plot) seem pale and inconsequential. The creation of such a vibrant, exciting character is is a compliment to the author - but unfortunately the rest of the book does not match up to her.
Notwithstanding these criticisms, this is a readable book which nicely illustrates the nature of Hong Kong during the second world war. There is a decent plot twist which I didn't see coming - and which to a certain extent links the two halves of the plot. But ultimately this was not sufficient to my mind to justify the post war part of the plot which did not add much value.
This is a holiday read - no more, no less. It leaves your mind almost immediately when you finish it and I certainly didn't feel the need to rush back for the next chapter that you get with the best kind of books. It is a shame that such a vibrant character as Trudy was not put into a better plot. But as she was not, this can't get more than 3 stars.
"The Piano Teacher," a debut novel by Janice Y.K. Lee that can, I guess, best be classified as an historical romantic thriller, is set in Hong Kong, one of the most beautiful and exotic of all cities. It takes place during the glamorous, immediate prewar years of the 1940s; the dark days of World War II, and the dreary, immediate post-war years of that city. The author, Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong, graduated from Harvard College, and was features editor at "Elle," and "Mirabella" magazines.
The writer's love of her hometown shines through on every page, with exemplary descriptions of the island city's seagoing location, its weather, its flora and fauna, its food and housing, and its social mores. She has given us some very well-honed major characters; two love stories for the price of one, good dialogue, and an intense, interesting plot set at a very fraught time and place in history. Hong Kong, of course, was considered to be British forever, despite the fact that the majority of its population was mainland Chinese; however, it was handed over to the Chinese, with suitable pomp and a ceremonial changing of the guard, in 1999.
In 1942, a handsome Englishman Will Truesdale, newly arrived in H.K., falls overnight into a hot and heavy affair with Trudy Liang, rich and beautiful Eurasian socialite ( half-Portuguese, half Chinese). The war, and the invasion and occupation of the Japanese, sees Will imprisoned with other English civilians, while Trudy is able to remain outside; but she must fend for herself as best she can. The war and occupation, as we know from history, had cruel effects upon the city and its people. (I once knew a fellow who had served in a WW II submarine; he always said his most memorable moment was the liberation of Hong Kong, and the eyes of the surviving civilians as they were released from their hellish prison camps).
At any rate, Trudy dies in the war, as do many of her friends and relatives; Will survives badly scarred physically and emotionally. Ten years later, he has, for whatever his reasons, taken up work as chauffeur to the Chens, a very wealthy, prominent Chinese Hong Kong family, when he meets their daughter's new piano teacher. She is Claire Pendleton, an unworldly, inexperienced English girl, newly arrived in Hong Kong as the young wife of a senior English bureaucrat. They also quickly embark upon a passionate relationship that is soon known to one and all, but his past - and Trudy --still keep a jealous hold on him.
For a tyro writer, Lee handles the flashbacks with ease, and keeps both stories tracking. This may not be a perfect book, but it is engrossing, haunting, and likely to have resonance long past the Hong Kong handover of ten years ago.
on 1 April 2012
I did quite like this book but I was only ever interested in one side of the story at a time. Initially I quite liked Claire's story and seeing how she approached the culture in Hong-Kong as a British woman. From the way some of the other British living in Hong-Kong were described I thought that bit could have gone quite wrong, with Claire just being a bit of a socialite and not seeing the `real' Hong-Kong. In some ways I did feel like there was a very British feel to the novel, it was almost as if the bits of Hong-Kong culture were added in order to remind the reader that The Piano Teacher wasn't actually set in the U.K. However in other cases it was interesting to read about how Hong-Kong nationals had actually joined their own culture with the British culture.
In the early points I didn't like Trudy and Will's story at all. I wasn't interested in the life of a socialite at all, and to be honest I really didn't like Trudy, mainly she annoyed me. As the story progressed I started preferring this story to Claire's however. I am a frequent reader of stories set in war time, and as war approached I found the book much more interesting, especially as I had known next to nothing about Hong-Kong during the second world war. I still didn't like Trudy though.
To be honest I think I just would have preferred this book if it was a book about Hong-Kong during war time, and I think there was enough material to make that possible.