In 1942, Will Trusdale, an Englishman newly arrived in Hong Kong, has fallen headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. When World War II strikes, Will is sent to an internment camp, while Trudy remains outside. Trudy is forced to form dangerous alliances with the head of the Japanese 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 meets the enigmatic Will.
The story then goes back and forth from 1941 to 1953 as the characters are introduced in preparation for possible invasion by the Japanese. With the use of flashback mode and differing points of view, we see the growth in the characters and how the war deeply affects them all. Will’s importance is slowly revealed when the reader is taken back to 1941 and the beginning of his passionate affair with Trudy Liang, a young, spoiled Eurasion. Trudy has numerous connections with the Hong Kong community and has a tremendous emotional impact on Will.
Written with exquisite detail as to location, the reader can immerse themselves into the environs of Hong Kong. It is easy to visualize the center with its European, classical style building and yet, not far away, the local market with its narrow alley ways and frenetic activity amid smoky stalls and clamorous noise. I felt like I was walking with Claire as she becomes familiar with her new home. With her seamless segueing between decades, the character development is tremendous. The characters are so well fleshed out as to emotion and vulnerability, the reader will feel as if they are truly alive. Their emotions and feelings just seem to leap off the page.
Lee unfolds each complex layer bit by bit without missing a beat. When the lives of all the characters come to a point of convergence, the past haunts the present in the many intertwined relationships. Alliances forged during the war will have long reaching consequences long after the war is over. People who had high positions now are brought to new lows, the war being the great equalizer. It all comes down to a matter of survival and the lengths people will go to cope with the horrors and atrocities of war.
There are so many elements in the telling of this story: romance, loyalty, betrayal, secrets, history along with social commentary. The peripheral characters are easily woven into the story with their own interesting sub plots. The surprising twists at the end only add to the enjoyment of this novel. The progression of the story is orderly with no superfluous details and with a wonderfully engrossing plot, this book is sure to be a success. I absolutely loved it. 5*****
Don't bother reading a lot of blurbs and reviews--just get the book and snuggle down and enjoy.
Very Graham Greene/Somerset Maugham and so well done it's quite hard to believe it's a first novel. Now I want another by Lee.
Thanks to the publisher and to LT for the ARC
The Piano Teacher tells the story of two separate love affairs in the life of English ex-pat Will Truesdale. The two events are separated by a span of 12 years. In the 1940s, Will is new to Hong Kong and in love with a young Eurasian heiress, Trudy. They fill their days and nights with parties and other pleasant diversions. Even the war does little to affect their lifestyle, until the Japanese decide to put all the "enemy civilians" in interment camps. Will goes into the camp, but Trudy denies her British citizenship and remains free. From this point on, the story turns into a tragically human story of love, betrayal, and loss.
In the 1950s, Will has an affair with a young married woman, Claire. However, Will and Claire's affair simply provides the framework for the bigger picture of what ultimately happened to Will and Trudy during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong.
I'll be honest, I didn't really enjoy this book much. It's written in a spare style which I like very much and I thought the story was intriguing. I even grew to like Trudi over the period of the novel, though I didn't at the beginning. I think the problem, however, was that Claire bothered me. Despite the fact that she steals from her employers and carries on an affair behind her husband's back, she seemed spineless to me. To be honest, I didn't like post-war Will either. They seemed empty, going through the motions to get the author's plot where it was going by that point. The best parts were certainly those featured after the start of the war and the occupation of Hong Kong, at which point the novel develops into a very moving, human story about the unfortunate power of war.
Is it worth reading? Yes, but I really wish that the author had not chosen the dual narratives. They allow us to see the effects of the war, but it could have been done with someone more interesting than Claire, characters who had personality, or at least someone I could relate to in some way. Personal preference, and I'm sorry that such a thing marred my enjoyment of what could otherwise have been a stunning book.
Next, Will and Trudy are introduced. The author bounces back to 1940 when they met and begins to draw the two time periods together until Clair and Will cross paths. As well as the love affair that begins, there is much scandal between many wealthy players.
The book is obviously well researched and much detail is provided about the effects of the war on the people of Hong Kong. The Japanese were portryed as very ruthless. However, the moving from decade back to decade made the story hard for me to follow. Another character of the story, Victor, was a shrewd man but I never really picked up on all of the evil that he was involved in. It didn't seem to make any sense, even in the end when it all comes together.
Overall, this isn't a book that I would have ordinarily picked to read, and although I'm glad that I did read it, it's not a book that I liked much.
Enigmatic Will is an Englishman who falls in love with Trudy, a Eurasian socialite in 1942 and then has an afair in 1952 with a married English piano teacher, who becomes embroiled in his past and his present. There are numerous connections that both enhance and detract from both relationships. The ending surprised me and also satisfied my curiosity about what happened to the people in this novel.
It is also a mesmerizing glimpse into an occupied Hong Kong during WWII where people's loyalties are often divided and ambiguous. I hope that Janice Y.K. Lee is already working on another novel of this caliber.
One of the big themes is the question of being a collaborator with the enemy. Were do you draw the line between collaborating, and survival? And different people judge and are judged differently.
I found it to be a quick read, as I kept wanting to find out what happened to everyone. I did feel that the ending was a little flat. Hard to say why though.
Quote: "'I would think,' Claire said, 'if I knew that people would be looking in my house all day from the tram, I'd make a point of leaving it tidy, wouldn't you?'"
Sometimes when stories are written from two separate time periods, it seems like a gimmick that does not actually add anything to the story. This is certainly not the case with The Piano Teacher, however. The two stories complement and parallel each other. Will is a compelling character, despite the fact that the reader is asked to root for him in two different relationships. This is made somewhat easier because Trudy and Claire are complete opposites - Trudy is accomplished, polished, confident, world-wise, while Claire is provincial, naive, and completely unsure. It is worth a read, particularly if you are interested in World War II from Hong Kong's perspective.
This book grabs you in the first chapter, and I absolutely had a hard time putting it down. The author's juxtaposition of the two time periods, slowly unfolding the central narratives in each makes for a captivating read. I found the characters and the motives for their actions intriguing. The author's description of the setting was rich--at points I felt like I could feel the humidity (maybe its just because its pretty humid where I live) and smell the streets of Hong Kong. And although this book sounds like a fairly standard historical romance, some of its plot elements kept me guessing to the end.
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical romance, because its one of the best i've read in a while. I know its early in the year, but I have a feeling The Piano Teacher is going to stay on my best of the year list.
The other time period is WWII Hong Kong, just prior to the Japanese invasion and occupation of Hong Kong. The primary characters in this time period are Will Truesdale, another British expatriate who becomes involved with Trudy, a flamboyant wealthy Eurasian daughter of a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur.
As the novel progresses, Claire becomes involved with the 1953 Will Truesdale and the story of brutality in the Japanese concentration camps and the machinery of greed, racism, and classism play themselves out.
Pay attention to the names in the book, they tell the nature of the characters. None of the characters are particularly likeable, but then war doesn't tend to bring about the best in people. The writing is spare and at times bloodless. At times I had the sense that I was reading a screenplay for the silver screen.
On the surface, this is a romance novel about a man’s One Great Love that can’t withstand the rigours of the war, and a less than great affair with a married piano teacher. Underneath that surface lies a cleverly constructed mystery about a beautiful socialite who disappears during the war and the people responsible, directly and indirectly, for her death.
Some of the characters grow rich, stay safe, become successful, others are interned, tortured and die – and it's rarely the people you expect, there’s a surprise in almost every chapter. No one is who or what they seemed to be at the start. A great many dirty secrets are revealed, many lives ruined, some vindicated and some - you never do find out what happened. Rich and poor, they just disappear. The brutality of the Japanese occupation is not glossed over. This is not a story for the squeamish.
The book’s cover – distinctly Mills and Boon – didn’t fill me with much in the way of anticipation, I was expecting a weak and slushy romance in an exotic setting. I was wrong. The setting and the characters are palpable, real and perfectly drawn; the plot compelling and intriguing. Highly recommended
All of that is minor for enjoyment of the book, however. Although I've never been to Hong Kong, I got some sense of the city with this reading. The best parts of the book were Will's story set just prior to and during WWII. It is in telling this story that Lee's writing comes to life. This may be simply that Will and Trudy have more color than Claire. The book also provides a limited history lesson of Hong Kong during WWII as it tells Will's and Trudy's stories.
Over all, this was a pleasant and enjoyable book.
I thought the book was just okay. Not good. Not great. To me, it didn't really have a point other than to demonstrate how people's lives can change because of war. The synopsis on the book jacket said that a terrible secret would be revealed, but IMHO there was no big terrible secret revealed. It was actually quite a let-down, waiting for a big reveal and then none was coming. There was one plot twist that might have been the reveal they were talking about, but if that's the case it wasn't such a big shock like it was made out to be.
I gave this book 3 stars, and that's being generous.
A holiday read in 2009.
The conversation with Janice YK Lee at the end of book reveals how the novel started out as a short story and then developed with the introduction of new characters. It took five years to complete and was a process of writing and writing about what the characters did and said.
Along with this went extensive research into Hong Kong in World War II that gives the novel its fascinating and vivid detail. Janice YK Lee says she hoped people can really sink themselves into the world that is portrayed in the book. I certainly did sink into it myself, the atmosphere of Hong Kong during the occupation and the post war period was so finely recreated, the social scene, clothes, mannerisms, the food, were all drawn in fine detail.
The central characters Trudy, Will and Claire were all flawed and believable. I enjoyed the characters so much, the plot and the story were secondary. The plot – the Crown Collection – a hoard of precious artefacts being hidden away during the war and finally being unearthed and returned to the Chinese in a shady deal – was almost superfluous, it was the experience.
General Fiction Novel
Published in 2009