The Piano Teacher: A Novel

By Janice Y. K. Lee
Publisher:Viking Adult, (1/13/2009)

Average Rating:
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2.00 out of 5 (1 Clubie's ratings)

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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.
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E's Reads's thoughts on "The Piano Teacher: A Novel"
updated on:3/29/2010

 Story was blah... didn't buy the main relationship in the book. I did enjoy learning about Hong Kong during WWII.   1/10

Mildly Unleashable

"The Piano Teacher: A Novel"
By Janice Y. K. Lee

Average Rating:
Mildly Unleashable
2.00 out of 5 (1 Clubie's ratings)

The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.

  • Why does Claire steal from the Chens? Why does she stop doing it?

  • Part of Claire’s attraction to Will is that he allows her to be someone different than she had always been. Have you ever been drawn to a person or a situation because it offered you the opportunity to reinvent yourself?

  • The amahs are a steady but silent presence throughout the book. Imagine Trudy and Will’s relationship and then Claire and Will’s affair from their point of view and discuss.

  • Trudy was initially drawn to Will because of his quiet equanimity and Will to Claire because of her innocence. Yet those are precisely the qualities each loses in the course of their love affairs. What does this say about the nature of these relationships? Would Will have been attracted to a woman like Claire before Trudy?

  • What is the irony behind Claire’s adoration of the young Princess Elizabeth?

  • Were Dominick and Trudy guilty of collaboration, or were they simply trying to survive? Do their circumstances absolve them of their actions?

  • Mary, Tobias’s mother, and one of Will’s fellow prisoners in Stanley, does not take advantage of her job in the kitchen to steal more food for her son. Yet she prostitutes herself to preserve him. Is Tobias’s physical survival worth the psychological damage she’s inflicting?

  • Did Trudy give her emerald ring and Locket to Melody? How much did Melody really know?

  • How do Ned Young’s experiences parallel Trudy’s?

  • Did Will fail Trudy? Was his decision to remain in Stanley rather than be with her on the outside—as he believes—an act of cowardice?

  • Would Locket be better off knowing the truth about her parentage?

  • What would happen if Trudy somehow survived and came back to Will? Could they find happiness together?

  • Clubie Submitted Discussion Questions
    Have a good question? If your a clubie add one now.
    From Publishers Weekly
    Starred Review. 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. (Jan.) 
    Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 

    From The New Yorker
    This cinematic tale of two love affairs in mid-century Hong Kong shows colonial pretensions tainted by wartime truths. Will Truesdale, a rootless, handsome Briton, arrives in the colony in 1941, and is swept up by Trudy Liang, the blithe and glamorous daughter of a Shanghai millionaire and a Portuguese beauty. They quickly become inseparable, their days spent in a whirl of parties and champagne, but when the Japanese invade, Will is interned and Trudy resorts to increasingly Faustian methods to survive. After the war, Claire Pendleton, the naive wife of a British civil servant, arrives. She begins giving piano lessons to the daughter of a rich Chinese couple, and falls in love with their wounded and inscrutable driver: Will. Lee unfolds each story, and flits between them, with the brisk grace and discretion of the society she describes a world in which horrors are adumbrated but seldom told. 
    Copyright ©2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker 

    From The Washington Post
    From The Washington Post's Book World/ Reviewed by Marie Arana 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 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, pre-pubescent 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 pre-war 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 clichés ("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. 
    Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. 

    THE PIANO TEACHER is laced with intrigue…Readers will be enthralled by Lee’s depiction of Will’s relationships with his two lovers – ‘Claire, with her blond and familiar femininity, English rose to Trudy’s exotic scorpion’ – and the unsparing way Lee unravels them.” 
    New York Times Book 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 …If we measure the skill of a fiction writer by her ability to create characters and atmosphere so effortlessly real, so alive on the page, that the reader feels a sense of participatory anxiety –as if the act of reading gives one the power to somehow influence the outcome of purely imaginary events – then Lee should be counted among the very best in recent memory.” 
    Chicago Tribune

    “Lee delivers a standout debut….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)

    “War, love, betrayal – an exquisite fugue of a first novel…Intensely readable…”
    O, The Oprah Magazine

    “…the novel is sustained by elegant prose and a terrific sense of place. As Graham Greene evoked Vietnam in The Quiet American, Lee, born and raised in Hong Kong long after the war, captures the city as it was during World War II, its glittering veneer barely masking the panic and corruption beneath.” 
     Miami Herald

    “Lee is at her best when describing the horrors of the blood-soaked occupation. She paints a compelling portrait of the devastating choices people make in order to survive…”
    — Time Out New York

    “This season’s Atonement…The riveting narrative follows Claire, a conventional, middle-class British girl, as she moves to Hong Kong in the 1950s with her civil servant husband and is transformed, E.M Forster style, by the freedom of the exotic place. The book has an incredibly escapist pull…reading The Piano Teacher is the perfect vicarious voyage.” 
     Elle Magazine

    “A lush examination of East-West relations.” 
    Kirkus Reviews

    “Janice Y. K. Lee delivers a standout debut…”
    The Boston Globe

    “…immensely satisfying debut.”
    People (4 Stars)

    “Lee tells two engrossing love stories….Just hide your phone before cracking this one open—or risk calling your ex.”
    Marie Claire

    “East meets West, and peace meets war, in a compelling debut novel.” 
    — Body & Soul 

    “Sensual and gripping…”
    Good Housekeeping

    “Janice Y.K. Lee makes a powerful entry into the literary world with this lush, intriguing novel…” 
    January ’09 Indie Next List, Bill Cusumano, Nicola’s Books

    “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.” 

    “Rarely does one encounter a debut work as beguiling and assured as Janice Lee’s THE PIANO TEACHER. Rich with intrigue, romance, and betrayal, this wonderfully written, utterly captivating novel dazzles with its sharp-eyed renderings of beau-monde Hong Kong as it is plunged into the crucible of war. With its fascinating interplay of East and West and wide cast of effervescent characters, especially the singularly haunting Trudy Liang, this is a truly transporting—and indeed irresistible—work of fiction.”
    —Chang-rae Lee

    “This is a rare and exquisite story. It does exactly what a great novel should do – transports you out of time, out of place, into a world you can feel on your very skin.”
    — Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

    “One of the most insightful, elegant, and atmospheric novels I’ve read in a long time. Janice Lee is nothing short of brilliant and her novel is impossible to put down.” 
    — Gary Shteyngart 
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    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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