The Piano Teacher
Janice Y. K. Lee's debut novel, The Piano Teacher, takes the reader inside the upper social circles of Hong Kong during and ten years after World War II. The book opens in 1950s Hong Kong with Claire Pendleton, a young British wife who is bored and takes a job teaching piano to the daughter of a wealthy Hong Kong couple. “It started as an accident. The small Herend rabbit had fallen into Claire's purse.” In these first two lines of the novel, Claire is stealing an expensive figurine from her employer. This act of theft is a crucial revelation of character. Claire will also soon begin an affair with an Englishman who is her employers' chauffeur. The affair is a kind of emotional theft that seems devoid of passion or purpose, as does the physical theft of the figurine.
In the second section of the novel, Lee moves back in time to war-time Hong Kong. It's here that we meet Will Truesdale, Claire's soon-to-be lover. He is new in Hong Kong, and falling in love with Trudy Liang, a young woman he meets at a party. “She is famous, born of a well-known couple, the mother a Portuguese beauty, the father a Shanghai millionaire with fortunes in trading and money lending.” Trudy is spoiled and self-absorbed, and Will seems to be long suffering in his loyal pursuit of her. But the thing we come to learn about Hong Kong and the people who live there is that nothing is quite as it seems.
I was reminded a bit of The Great Gatsby as I read the war-time sections. Lee has created a group of privileged people who live a life of decadence, partying and dining out and lounging about, while their servants feed and groom them and they grow ever more bored with the routine of their privilege. The post-war sections, on the other hand, are redolent with a sense of the decay that has settled over the leisure class. The war seems to have affected everyone, but no one wants to talk about it. Both representations of Hong Kong are vivid and evocative.
Lee builds tension as she progresses through her story, unfolding the layers that will eventually reveal why it is that, ten years after the war and the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, Will is a chauffeur and Trudy is no longer with him. There is an act of betrayal at the heart of the life Will is leading when Claire meets him. I couldn't put this book down while I was moving through the clues, the bits of character revelation that eventually lead to the story of that betrayal.
Unfortunately, once the act is exposed, the tension seems to vanish. The plot gets mired down in some extraneous intrigue regarding the Crown Collection, a group of Chinese artifacts that disappeared during the war, and the reason behind Will's current employment. The enthralling parts of the novel–the triangle of Will and his current and past lovers, and the ways in which the war and its aftermath affect these lovers–become murky in order to make room for tying up the ends of this intrigue. I much prefer the shadowy struggle between Will's lovers: “She came unbidden to his dreams too, battling with the other woman, the one who haunted him day and night. Claire, with her blond and familiar femininity, English rose to Trudy's scorpion.” The two women, perhaps representative of the battle between cultures that Will finds himself unable to avoid, are beautifully drawn and deserving of holding the stage through to the end of the novel, without the intrusion of this unnecessary Crown Collection detour.