What a debut from author Janice Y. K. Lee! The Piano Teacher, Claire Pendelton, is a young British woman, recently married, who moved to the Hong Kong colony. She never had a desire to leave home, but in trying to fit in with the other ex-pats, meets Will Truesdale and they begin a tumultuous relationship. Hong Kong is rebounding in the early `50s after the Japanese occupation during WWII. The rich are getting richer, the queen’s coronation is stirring patriotic pride and the social castes (pure Chinese, Europeans, Americans, Eurasians) are as strong as ever. But the war still lingers in the hearts and minds of everyone. And Will is one who just can’t move past it, but then Will had lost the most.
The love of Will’s life was a “quixotic Eurasian named Trudy Liang. Driven by deep insecurities, Trudy was part Holly Golightly, part Mata Hari — charming, insulting, scheming and above all captivating,” as noted in the New York Times. Will and Trudy had only been together six months before the war broke out and separated them, but Lee is able to give them such a textured, deep relationship, the reader feels as they do: that they had been together forever.
The novel alternates between WWII and the “present” time period of the early `50s. It works well as we move back and forth gaining insight about the characters’s lives before and how circumstances forced them to become who they are now, or, most telling, highlighted the traits they’d tried to keep hidden. Interestingly the sections that take place during the war are written in present tense and those in the `50s are written in past tense, as if the pain of the war was more alive for the characters than the present day.
What was also interesting is how none of the characters are inherently likeable. Will can be flip and downright mean. Claire is prejudiced and grating. The Chens (the family who hires Claire to teach piano) are self-absorbed and the British society Claire hobnobs with are petty and jealous. Yet Lee is able to avoid the pitfalls therein and in her clean prose still makes you want to read on to uncover everyone’s dirty secrets. What’s more is she doesn’t purposely withhold information from the reader as a way to create false suspense (something that I find so annoying, I’ll put a book down for good). The readers learn the details as Claire learns them, which is a subtle but important difference.
Lee doesn’t make any grand moral judgments (thank goodness) but in spare, Hemingwayesque style, let’s the reader ponder the thin, gray line between honor and loyalty, patriotism and self-preservation, and expectation and choice.