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The Piano Teacherby Janice Y. K. Lee
Synopses & Reviews
In the sweeping tradition of The English Patient, a gripping tale of love and betrayal set in war-torn Hong Kong.
In 1942, Will Truesdale, an Englishman newly arrived in Hong Kong, falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their love affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese as World War II overwhelms their part of the world. Will is sent to an internment camp, where he and other foreigners struggle daily for survival. Meanwhile, Trudy remains outside, forced to form dangerous alliances with the Japanese — in particular, the malevolent head of the gendarmerie, whose desperate attempts to locate a priceless collection of Chinese art lead to a chain of terrible betrayals.
Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong and is hired by the wealthy Chen family as their daughter’s piano teacher. A provincial English newlywed, Claire is seduced by the heady social life of the expatriate community. At one of its elegant cocktail parties, she meets Will, to whom she is instantly attracted — but as their affair intensifies, Claire discovers that Will’s enigmatic persona hides a devastating past. As she begins to understand the true nature of the world she has entered, and long-buried secrets start to emerge, Claire learns that sometimes the price of survival is love.
"Former Elle editor Lee delivers a standout debut dealing with the rigors of love and survival during a time of war, and the consequences of choices made under duress. Claire Pendleton, newly married and arrived in Hong Kong in 1952, finds work giving piano lessons to the daughter of Melody and Victor Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple. While the girl is less than interested in music, the Chens' flinty British expat driver, Will Truesdale, is certainly interested in Claire, and vice versa. Their fast-blossoming affair is juxtaposed against a plot line beginning in 1941 when Will gets swept up by the beautiful and tempestuous Trudy Liang, and then follows through his life during the Japanese occupation. As Claire and Will's affair becomes common knowledge, so do the specifics of Will's murky past, Trudy's motivations and Victor's role in past events. The rippling of past actions through to the present lends the narrative layers of intrigue and more than a few unexpected twists. Lee covers a little-known time in Chinese history without melodrama, and deconstructs without judgment the choices people make in order to live one more day under torturous circumstances." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
War. Love. Betrayal. The harsh lessons of history. These are big subjects for any veteran writer, and yet, in her first novel, Janice Y.K. Lee confronts them admirably. "The Piano Teacher" is an intricate tale about the British colony of Hong Kong during World War II, when the island's inhabitants were overrun by Japanese forces, suffered a harrowing occupation and emerged profoundly shaken — their... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) sense of self undone. It's hard to imagine a more complicated theme. Few have dealt with it successfully: J.G. Ballard did so in "Empire of the Sun," about a lone English boy in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion; Graham Greene, too, in "The Quiet American," about the French in Saigon after the war; and J.G. Farrell in "The Singapore Grip," about British bankers in 1939, on the verge of a terrible conflagration. These are superb novels that manage to convey the divided loyalties, sudden reversals of fortune and deadly opportunism that a colony in peril can breed. The piano teacher of Lee's story is Claire Pendleton, a callow, rudderless young woman who comes to Hong Kong in 1952 as the bride of a British engineer. She is somewhat bored with her languid new life and deeply repelled by her own husband. "Martin was older, in his forties, and had never had luck with women. The first time he kissed her, she had to stifle the urge to wipe her mouth." But Martin has whisked her away from stodgy old England, a menial job at an insurance company and an overbearing mother. Claire arrives in the colony full of curiosity, pleasantly surprised by its alluring bustle and unfamiliar ways. She is soon hired as a piano teacher for the chubby, prepubescent daughter of Victor and Melody Chen, who live in a vast mansion with many rooms, bursting with attentive servants. Claire decides to trade on her modest musical abilities "as a lark — something to fill the day," but in truth she needs the extra money. Before long, she is pilfering from her wealthy employers. Nothing too obvious: a pretty scarf, a bottle of perfume, a porcelain rabbit. In time, she falls into a torrid affair with the Chens' chauffeur. But the driver is no ordinary servant. Will Truesdale is an Englishman with an acute sense of irony, a pronounced limp and a complicated past. How and why this sophisticated, taciturn man has been reduced to such bitter circumstances, Claire does not know or dare to ask. She simply follows her impulse to leaven a dull marriage, fall into a stranger's bed and surrender to carnal desire. "I don't like to love," he tells her eventually. "You should be forewarned. I don't believe in it. And you shouldn't either." But love is precisely the key to Will's past. In alternating segments, Lee slowly ravels the tale of his long-ago liaison with the arrestingly beautiful and sharp-tongued Trudy Liang, a regular in the high-life of prewar Hong Kong. Will and Trudy are bon vivants: he, an executive with Asiatic Petrol; she, a Eurasian, "the mother a Portuguese beauty, the father a Shanghai millionaire." In 1941, in the full glow of their golden lives, Will and Trudy promise each other a love free of commitment or sentimentality — a love that transcends the mundane. The mundane is ushered in all too quickly, however, when Japanese forces invade Hong Kong, herd its British residents into concentration camps and coerce the Chinese locals to serve them in hitherto unimaginable ways. Trudy and Will are tested by hunger, separation and, finally, a tragic turn of events. Little wonder Will is a broken man. As the novel proceeds, time leaps vigorously back and forth from 1952 to 1941, with Will in the middle, at once gradually revealed and progressively unrecognizable. What consumes Claire all the while — answered only on the very last page — is: Who was Trudy Liang, after all? What became of her? And why is Will so beholden to the Chens? These are questions on which so much turns, especially a piano teacher's hard-won education. Let's make no false claims here. "The Piano Teacher" hardly rises to the level of novels by Ballard, Greene or Farrell. The decade jags can make for a jumpy narrative. The prose rarely sings. There are downright gaffes: Lee is all too capable of injecting verbal anachronisms ("Will was just the enabler") or cliches ("he sprawls into a chair, elegant limbs splayed out, the hunter having provided for his women"). Nevertheless, a persistent reader will be rewarded. There is something altogether haunting here. Perhaps it's the way the story advances, peeling its way from layer to layer until the truth of each character lies bare. Perhaps it's the way Lee shows us that war can make monsters of us all. Most memorably, however, it's her portrait of Hong Kong, which having witnessed so much cupidity, moves on with splendid indifference. Like a piano under different fingers. Or a siren with another song. Marie Arana, the former editor of The Washington Post Book World, now a writer at large for The Post, is the author of a new novel, "Lima Nights." She can be reached at aranam(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Marie Arana, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Lee has created the sort of interesting, complex characters, especially in Trudy, that drive a rich and intimate look at what happens to people under extraordinary circumstances." Booklist
"Thrust from privilege into imprisonment virtually overnight, Lee's characters are caught up in the intrigue and collusion that were part of wartime survival. Her adept pacing slowly exposes the inevitability of tragedy that engulfs her characters. Highly recommended." Library Journal (Starred Review)
"Evocative, poignant and skillfully crafted, The Piano Teacher is more than an epic tale of war and a tangled, tortured love story. It is the kind of novel one consumes in great, greedy gulps, pausing (grudgingly) only when absolutely necessary." Chicago Tribune
"Lee proves a worthier instructor than Claire does, and her novel teaches that...passion may prove as destructive as war." Miami Herald
"In her debut novel...former Elle magazine editor Janice Y.K. Lee succeeds impressively..." Minneapolis Star Tribune
In the sweeping tradition of The English Patient, a gripping tale of love and betrayal set in war-torn Hong Kong.
A new novel by the author of The Last Chinese Chef, a love story between a black musician and a gangster's translator set against Shanghais dazzling jazz age and the looming menace of World War II, and "a rich and thoroughly captivating read." (Gail Tsukiyama, author of The Samurais Garden)
An epic tale of love, loyalty, and war from the acclaimed author of Monkey Bridge
Half a century after it began, the Vietnam War still has a hold on our national psyche. Lan Caos now-classic debut, Monkey Bridge, won her wide renown for connecting . . . the opposite realities of Vietnam and America” (Isabel Allende). In her triumphant new novel, Cao transports readers back to the war, illuminating events central to twentieth-century history through the lives of one Vietnamese American family.
Minh is a former South Vietnamese commander of the airborne brigade who left his homeland with his daughter, Mai. During the war, their lives became entwined with those of two Americans: James, a soldier, and Cliff, a military adviser. Forty years later, Minh and his daughter Mai live in a close-knit Vietnamese immigrant community in suburban Virginia. As Mai discovers a series of devastating truths about what really happened to her family during those years, Minh reflects upon his life and the story of love and betrayal that has remained locked in his heart since the fall of Saigon.
In 1936, classical pianist Thomas Greene is recruited to Shanghai to lead a jazz orchestra of fellow African-American expats. From being flat broke in segregated Baltimore to living in a mansion with servants of his own, he becomes the toast of a city obsessed with music, money, pleasure and power, even as it ignores the rising winds of war. Song Yuhua is refined and educated, and has been bonded since age eighteen to Shanghais most powerful crime boss in payment for her fathers gambling debts. Outwardly submissive, she burns with rage and risks her life spying on her master for the Communist Party. Only when Shanghai is shattered by the Japanese invasion do Song and Thomas find their way to each other. Though their union is forbidden, neither can back down from it in the turbulent years of occupation and resistance that follow. Torn between music and survival, freedom and commitment, love and world war, they are borne on an irresistible riff of melody and improvisation to Night in Shanghais final, impossible choice. In this stunningly researched novel, Nicole Mones not only tells the forgotten story of black musicians in the Chinese jazz age, but also weaves in a startling true tale of Holocaust heroism little-known in the West. View the Trailer: #LINK
About the Author
Janice Y. K. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong and went to boarding school in the United States before attending Harvard College. She is a former features editor at Elle and Mirabella magazines in New York. The Piano Teacher is her first book.
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