The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y. K. Lee
(New York: Penguin Books, 2009)
"In the sweeping tradition of The English Patient, Janice Y.K. Lee's debut novel is a tale of love and betrayal set in war-torn Hong Kong. In 1942, Englishman Will Truesdale falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese as World War II overwhelms their part of the world. Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong to work as a piano teacher and also begins a fateful affair. As the threads of this spellbinding novel intertwine, impossible choices emerge-between love and safety, courage and survival, the present, and above all, the past"
"It started as an accident. The small Herend rabbit had fallen into Claire’s purse."
This was another of those novels that I expected and really wanted to like more than I did. On paper the plot has promise: What will become of the rarefied world Will and Trudy inhabit (though neither really fully belong) as the war comes ever closer? What's happened to Will between the earlier, 1942-43 story line and the 1953 one featuring Claire that keeps him in Hong Kong, now as the Chens' remarkably underutilized chauffeur?
Trouble is, at least from my vantage point, it doesn't quite deliver. We learn what happens to all these people, of course, and naturally, this being a war story, some of the answers aren't pretty. But it didn't feel like we learned enough about what made the principal characters tick to really picture them in these harrowing settings and make us see the events through their eyes. Claire's pilfering habit (not a spoiler, as you learn about it somewhere around the first chapter) is interesting, but Lee barely scratches the surface of why she starts or what the purloined objects mean to her. We're told that her marriage to husband Martin is safe, conventional, and, well, not very exciting, but we don't see enough of Claire to understand exactly what she wants beyond that. Likewise, Will is a promising character I never really felt like I understood. As a prisoner of war, he shows not quite heroism, but a quiet, understated integrity and strength ... which doesn't quite jibe with how passive he seems in his relationship with Trudy.
Perhaps there's some meta-commentary here, but I found myself feeling like I imagine Lee's two chief European characters felt in Hong Kong: like a fish out of water, with things not quite fitting together as you'd expect. Not awful, and maybe I'm just not getting it, but the book didn't really resonate with me, either.