July 20, 2010
The Piano Teacher
The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
Finished on 6/24/10
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)
Sometimes the end of a love affair is only the beginning.
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, with terrible consequences for both of them, and for members of their fragile community who will betray each other in the darkest days of the war.
Ten years later, Claire Pendleton lands in 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 colony's heady social life. She soon begins an affair... only to discover that her lover's enigmatic demeanor hides a devastating past.
As the threads of this engrossing novel intertwine and converge, a landscape of impossible choices emerges—between love and safety, courage and survival, the present and, above all, the past.
I can't believe I owned this ARC for well over a year before I finally got around to giving it a read. OK, it's not that hard to believe, especially if you've seen the recent photos of my toppling stacks! Anyhow, I'd heard good things about the novel, especially after it became a Barnes & Noble Discover title, but it wasn't until my book club chose it for our June selection that I finally picked it up. Yes, we've read quite a few World War II novels, haven't we? And you'd think that alone would have won me over. I did enjoy Lee's beautifully evocative writing, but the characters were unsympathetic and I honestly couldn't work up much compassion for their predicaments, whether it be their romantic entanglements or that of the turmoil of war and imprisonment in the internment camp. It felt as though all the characters held each other (and the reader) at arm's length.
The narrative alternates between 1941-1942 (Trudy's story) and 1952-1953 (Claire's story).
People talk about Trudy all the time—she is always scandalizing someone or other. They talk about her in front of him, to him, as if daring him to say something. He never gives them anything about her. She came down from Shanghai, where she spent her early twenties in Noel Coward's old suite at the Cathay, and threw lavish parties on the roof terrace. She is rumored to have fled an affair there, an affair with a top gangster who became obsessed with her, rumored to have spent far too much time in the casinos, rumored to have friends who are singsong girls, rumored to have sold herself for a night to amuse herself, rumored to be an opium addict. She is a Lesbian. She is a Radical. She assures him that almost none of these rumors are true. She says Shanghai is the place to be, that Hong Kong is dreadfully suburban. She speaks fluent Shanghainese, Cantonese, Mandarin, English, conversational French, and a smattering of Portuguese. In Shanghai, she says, the day starts at four in the afternoon with tea, then drinks at the Cathay or someone's party, then dinner of hairy crab and rice wine if you're inclined to the local, then more drinks, and dancing, and you go and go, the night is so long, until it's time for breakfast—eggs and fried tomatoes at the Del Monte. Then you sleep until three, have noodles in brother for the hangover, and get dressed for another go around. So fun. She's going to go back one of these days, she says, as soon as her father will let her.
It begins like that. Her lilting laugh at a consular party. A spilled drink. A wet dress and a handkerchief hastily proffered. She is a sleek greyhound among others—plump, braying women of a certain class. He doesn't want to meet her—he is suspicious of her kind, all chiffon and champagne, nothing underneath, but she has knocked his glass down her silk shift ("There I go again," she says. "I'm the clumsiest person in all Hong Kong") and then commandeers him to escort her to the bathroom where she daubs at herself while peppering him with questions.
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.
She had accepted Martin's proposal to escape the dark interior of her house, her bitter mother railing against everything, getting worse, it seemed, with her advancing age, and an uninspiring job as a filing girl at an insurance company. 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. He was like a cow, slow and steady. And kind. She knew this. She was grateful for it.
She had not had many chances with men. Her parents stayed home all the time, and so she had as well. When she had started seeing Martin—he was the older brother of one of the girls at work—she had eaten dinner at restaurants, drunk a cocktail at a hotel bar, and seen other young women and men talking, laughing with an assurance she could not fathom. They had opinions about politics; they had read books she had never heard of and seen foreign films and talked about them with such confidence. She was enthralled and not a little intimidated. And then Martin had come to her, serious, his job was taking him to the Orient, and would she come with him? She was not so attracted to him, but who was she to be picky, she thought, hearing the voice of her mother. She let him kiss her and nodded yes.
On the tropical climate:
Coming over, she had noticed it for days, the increasing wetness in the air, even more than usual. The sea breezes were stronger and the sunrays more powerful when they broke through cloud. When the P&O Canton finally pulled into Hong Kong harbor in August, she really felt she was in the tropics, hair frizzing up in curls, face always slightly damp and oily, the constant moisture under her arms and knees. When she stepped from her cabin outside, the heat assailed her like a physical blow, until she managed to find shade and fan herself.
On Hong Kong:
The man lifted up the harness with a grunt. They started to roll along and Claire settled into the uncomfortable seat. Around them, the green was overwhelming, tropical trees bursting with leaves that dripped when scratched, bougainvillea and every other type of flowering bush springing forth from the hillsides. Sometimes, she got the feeling that Hong Kong was too alive. It seemed unable to restrain itself. There were insects crawling everywhere, wild dogs on the hills, mosquitoes breeding furiously. They had made roads in the hillsides and buildings sprouted out of the ground, but nature strained at her boundaries—there were always sweaty, shirtless worker men chopping away at the greenery that seemed to grow overnight. It wasn't India, she supposed, but it certainly wasn't England.
Final thoughts: The Piano Teacher is very readable. I was immediately drawn in to the storyline, although happy for the short chapters since my summer reading is sporadic at best. Although I never warmed to any of the characters, I did appreciate the historical context of the story.
And, oh my! Isn't that cover gorgeous?!
I found this Hong Kong War Diary link on Lee's website. Fascinating reading!