Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Review: The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y.K. Lee

The Piano Teacher is a complicated novel. On the surface, it’s about a love affair between two British ex-patriots in Hong Kong in 1952-3. Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong with her husband Martin at a time when the world is still recovering from WWII; Claire takes up work as a piano teacher for the daughter of a wealthy Chinese family, where she meets Will Truesdale, the Chens’ enigmatic chauffeur. The book jumps back in time between the 1950s and the beginning of WWII, when Will is interned in Stanley, a Hong Kong camp for enemies of Japan. On “the outside” is Tudy Liang, Will’s beautiful Eurasian lover.

There’s no doubt that Lee’s writing is beautiful. But there’s something lacking in this short, terse novel that I can’t quite put my finger on. First, I think it’s the tenses she uses when taking about each story: that which is set in the 1950s is in the past tense, while the war scenes are talked about in the present tense (confusing, no?) The interpersonal relationships of the main characters take a back seat to the horrors of Stanley camp (over 3000 people housed in a hotel with bad plumbing, bad food, and other horrendous conditions), as well as the brutal treatment of the British and Americans by the Japanese.

While the war scenes were sobering, I would have liked to have seen more of the relationship between Trudy and Will. I would have liked to have found out more about Will and Claire’s relationship, too: why are they drawn together, since they seem to have nothing in common? Too, there’s a lot that’s implied about what happened during the war, especially to Trudy and her cousin, Dommie; but we never find out for sure. And the “villain” in this novel wasn’t quite what I expected, either. His motivations for doing what he did are a little odd. But as I’ve said, the writing is beautiful, the research is superb, and the setting is fantastic. I just wish that Lee had done more with her characters, because they had so much promise.

Also reviewed by: Pudgy Penguin Perusals, Medieval Bookworm, A Guy's Moleskin Notebook


S. Krishna said...

Hmm...I definitely want to read this one, but I know what you mean when you say there's something lacking. I've felt that with other novels.

Marg said...

I have had this one on my TBR list for a while. Thanks for the review.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

This sounds interesting because it's a slightly different perspective on the war. I think I'd like to read this one. Nice, honest review and thanks for that!

Anna said...

Sounds like an interesting book, and it would be great for the WWII challenge I'm co-hosting. Would it be okay for me to post a link to your review on the book review page at War Through the Generations?

Diary of an Eccentric

Dar said...

Thanks for the good and honest review. I've had this one on my radar for a while and still want to read it but I understand what you mean when you say the characters just seem to be lacking.

Teddy Rose said...

Great review! It does sound like maybe Lee should have used a few more pages to flesh out the characters relationship more. I would also be annoyed with the tenses. You would think the more current parts would be present tense.

I'm not sure if I will read this one or not.

Serena said...

Wow, I was always told as a writer to watch the shift of tenses...odd that this book would have been published that way.

Thanks for an honest review.

The Reader said...

I just found your blog--I think my literary tastes are pretty close to yours. I'm also a Viner and I received The Piano Teacher last month. I really enjoyed the book though. I agree with you that there could have been more about the two love affairs, but overall I really liked the book.

Anna said...

Thanks for getting back to me! I've posted a link to the review here on War Through the Generations.

Diary of an Eccentric

Lit and Life said...

I liked this more than you did but I agreed with your take on the relationship between Will and Clare and the motivation of "the villain." I quoted part of your review in my review at


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