After reading several novels taking place in WWII Europe, I thought I’d try something a little bit different. And I do mean only a little different, since The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee mainly takes place during (and just after) WWII, though in Hong Kong. I hadn’t read much about what went on in Asia during this time, so I thought it might be interesting, and the story seemed potentially interesting. Unfortunately, it was rather disappointing.
The premise of the book is that you’re presented with two seemingly separate stories, and only after sometime do you see how they’re intertwined. The first story you see is in the early 50s, a bit after the war, with Englishwoman Claire Pendleton arriving in Hong Kong with her husband of only 4 months. While her husband is working with the Water Department to expand the local facilities, she tries to see what Hong Kong is like and later takes a job as a piano teacher.
Through Claire’s interactions, we start to meet a number of characters who connect to the other story, which takes place just before and during the start of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. This earlier story focuses on Will Truesdale, an Englishman working in Hong Kong, and Trudy Liang, a Chinese-Portuguese woman who has been enjoying the life of luxury and society. Will was romantically involved with Trudy and later comes into Claire’s life as well, and the book flips between the two storylines.
This repeated switching wasn’t ok, though I kept finding myself wanting to get back to the other story already, because it didn’t feel like much was going on in the one I was currently in. Some of this comes from the story not feeling all that compelling, but I think a lot of this was more about the fact that none of the characters are likable at all. Trudy is the most grating of them all, and I couldn’t stand her nonchalant and self-centered personality, which Will and others just went along with. And Claire didn’t seem much better, with some of her actions suggesting more to her than the author ever provided you with.
Several times while reading this book, I thought about quitting altogether, especially with all the generalizations about groups of people (the English are like this, the Chinese are like that) and racist attitudes of the characters. But I kept hoping that the story would pick up and something more interesting would happen. Unfortunately, the interesting parts are only alluded to or dumped on you at the end, and with all the awful people and things going on before that, it just wasn’t worth reading to the end.
I would definitely not recommend The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee overall. Perhaps I should have followed my instinct when I thought that the review blurb on the front cover may have been a red flag; it was from Elle magazine, touting the book as “this season’s Atonement.” Yeesh. (As a side note, the author is a former editor for Elle, so take that as you will.)