The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher

3.5 206
by Janice Y. K. Lee

View All Available Formats & Editions

"A rare and exquisite story...Transports you out of time, out of place, into a world you can feel on your very skin." -Elizabeth Gilbert

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

See more details below

  • Checkmark B&N Discover Great New Writers  Shop Now
  • Checkmark Celebrating 80 Years of Penguin Books  Shop Now


"A rare and exquisite story...Transports you out of time, out of place, into a world you can feel on your very skin." -Elizabeth Gilbert

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.

The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee is coming from Viking Books on January 12, 2016

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Riveting . . . This season's Atonement."
"Laced with intrigue."
The New York Times Book Review, “Editor’s Choice”
"Evocative, poignant, and skillfully crafted, The Piano Teacher is more than an epic tale of war and a tangled, tortured love story. It is the kind of novel one consumes in great, greedy gulps, pausing (grudgingly) only when absolutely necessary. . . . If we measure the skill of a fiction writer by her ability to create characters and atmosphere so effortlessly real, so alive on the page, that the reader feels a sense of participatory anxiety—as if the act of reading gives one the power to somehow influence the outcome of purely imaginary events—then Lee should be counted among the very best in recent memory."
Chicago Tribune
"A shattering, immensely satisfying debut."
People (4 stars)
"War, love, betrayal—an exquisite fugue of a first novel . . . intensely readable."
O, The Oprah Magazine
"Lee unfolds the story with the brisk grace and discretion of the society she describes."
The New Yorker
"Sensual and gripping."
Good Housekeeping
“Janice Lee delivers a standout debut.”
­—The Boston Globe
"The novel is sustained by elegant prose and a terrific sense of place. As Graham Greene evoked Vietnam in The Quiet American, Lee, born and raised in Hong Kong long after the war, captures the city as it was during World War II, its glittering veneer barely masking the panic and corruption beneath."
The Miami Herald
“A compelling portrait of the devastating choices people make in order to survive.”
TimeOut New York
"Lee tells two engrossing love stories. . . . Just hide your phone before cracking this one open—or risk calling your ex."
Marie Claire
"Lee delivers a standout debut [with] layers of intrigue and more than a few unexpected twists."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A lush examination of East-West relations."
Kirkus Reviews
“Lee has created the sort of interesting, complex characters, especially in Trudy, that drive a rich and intimate look at what happens to people under extraordinary circumstances.”
"A rare and exquisite story. It does exactly what a great novel should do—transports you out of time, out of place, into a world you can feel in your very own skin."
—Elizabeth Gilbert
"One of the most insightful, elegant, and atmospheric novels I’ve read in a long time. Janice Lee is nothing short of brilliant and her novel is impossible to put down."
—Gary Shteyngart
"Rarely does one encounter a debut work as beguiling and assured as Janice Lee’s The Piano Teacher. Rich with intrigue, romance, and betrayal, this wonderfully written, utterly captivating novel dazzles with its sharp-eyed renderings of beau monde Hong Kong as it is plunged into the crucible of war. With its fascinating interplay of East and West and wide cast of effervescent characters . . . this is a truly transporting—and indeed irresistible—work of fiction."
—Chang-Rae Lee
“Compelling . . . A persuasive re-creation of a time and place.”
—Penelope Lively
Lisa Fugard
The Piano Teacher is laced with intrigue concerning a hoard of Chinese artifacts called the Crown Collection that went missing during the war (like the artworks owned by the real-life Hong Kong businessman Paul Chater). But while the inevitable "who did what and when and why" that dominates the last third of the novel is satisfying because it answers all those questions, readers will be more enthralled by Lee's depiction of Will's relationships with his two lovers—"Claire, with her blond and familiar femininity, English rose to Trudy's exotic scorpion"—and the unsparing way Lee unravels them.
—The New York Times
Marie Arana
There is something altogether haunting here. Perhaps it's the way the story advances, peeling its way from layer to layer until the truth of each character lies bare. Perhaps it's the way Lee shows us that war can make monsters of us all. Most memorably, however, it's her portrait of Hong Kong, which having witnessed so much cupidity, moves on with splendid indifference. Like a piano under different fingers. Or a siren with another song.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Orlagh Cassidy narrates this tale of Hong Kong's ultra-wealthy Chinese and the British and American expats who share their high life until Japanese occupation in the early 1940s. After the war Claire, the American naïf who joins society through her role as a piano teacher, leaves her husband, is abandoned by her lover and settles into a quiet suburb far from the social whirl. Cassidy handles various accents expertly and has a keen sense of irony, but she is unsuited for more emotionally charged settings-the love scenes hardly seem romantic, and the horror, intrigue and collusion of the occupation period should have been recounted with more drama and less aloofness. A Viking hardcover (Reviews, Sept. 8). (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Moving back and forth in time between the Japanese invasion of World War II and its aftermath ten years later, this debut novel by Lee, whose familiarity with her Hong Kong homeland is apparent in her vivid descriptions of the setting, is a sparsely written study of how people react under extraordinary circumstances. Actress/narrator Orlagh Cassidy's (Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict) fluid and charming performance helps listeners better engage with the tale's generally unsympathetic characters. Of interest to larger public libraries. [Audio clip available through; the Viking hc received a starred review, LJ10/1/08.-Ed.]
—Denise A. Garofalo

Read More

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking / Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE PIANO TEACHER Copyright © Janice Y.K. Lee, 2009

May 1952

It started as an accident. The small Herend rabbit had fallen into Claire’s purse. It had been on the piano and she had been gathering up the sheet music at the end of the lesson when she knocked it off. It fell off the doily (a doily! on the Steinway!) and into her large leather bag. What had happened after that was perplexing, even to her. Locket had been staring down at the keyboard and hadn’t noticed. And then, Claire had just . . . left. It wasn’t until she was downstairs and waiting for the bus that she grasped what she had done. And then it had been too late. She went home and buried the expensive porcelain figurine under her sweaters.

Claire and her husband had moved to Hong Kong nine months ago, transferred by the government, which had posted Martin at the Department of Water Services. Churchill had ended rationing and things were starting to return to normal when they had received news of the posting. She had never dreamed of leaving England before.

Martin was an engineer, overseeing the building of the Tai Lam Cheung reservoir, so that there wouldn’t need to be so much rationing when the rains ebbed, as they did every several years. It was to hold four and a half billion gallons of water when full. Claire almost couldn’t imagine such a number, but Martin said it was barely enough for the people of Hong Kong, and he was sure that by the time they were finished, they’d have to build another. “More work for me,” he said cheerfully. He was analyzing the topography of the hills so that they could install catchwaters for when the rain came. The English government did so much for the colonies, Claire knew. They made the locals’ lives much better but they rarely appreciated it. Her mother had warned her about the Chinese before she left— an unscrupulous, conniving people who would surely try to take advantage of her innocence and goodwill.

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.

There had been seven stops along the month-long journey, but after a few grimy hours spent in Algiers and Port Said, Claire had decided to stay onboard rather than encounter more frightening peoples and customs. She had never imagined such sights. In Algiers, she had seen a man kiss a donkey and she couldn’t discern whether the high odor was coming from one or the other, and in Egypt, the markets were the very definition of unhygienic—a fishmonger gutting a fish had licked the knife clean with his tongue. She had inquired as to whether the ship’s provisions were procured locally, at these markets, and the answer had been most unsatisfactory. An uncle had died from food poisoning in India, making her cautious. She kept to herself and sustained herself mostly on the beef tea they dispensed in the late morning on the sun deck. The menus that were distributed every day were mundane: turnips, potatoes, things that could be stored in the hold, with meat and salads the first few days after port. Martin promenaded on the deck every morning for exercise and tried to get her to join him, to no avail. She preferred to sit in a deck chair with a large brimmed hat and wrap herself in one of the scratchy wool ship blankets, face shaded from the omnipresent sun.

There had been a scandal on the ship. A woman, going to meet her fiancé in Hong Kong, had spent one too many moonlit nights on the deck with another gentleman and had disembarked in the Philippines with her new man, leaving only a letter for her intended. Liesel, the girlfriend to whom the woman had entrusted the letter, grew visibly more nervous as the date of arrival drew near. Men joked that she could take Sarah’s place, but she wasn’t having any of that. Liesel was a serious young woman who was joining her sister and brother-in-law in Hong Kong, where she intended to educate Unfortunate Chinese Girls in Art: when she held forth on it, it was always with capital letters in Claire’s mind.

Before disembarking, Claire separated out all of her thin cotton dresses and skirts; she could tell that was all she would be wearing for a while. They had arrived to a big party on the dock, with paper streamers and loud, shouting vendors selling fresh fruit juice and soy milk drinks and garish flower arrangements to the people waiting. Groups of revelers had already broken out the champagne and were toasting the arrival of their friends and family.

“We pop them as soon as we see the boat on the horizon,” a man explained to his girl as he escorted her off the boat. “It’s a big party. We’ve been here for hours.” Claire watched Liesel go down the gangplank, looking very nervous, and then she disappeared into the throng. Claire and Martin went down next, treading on the soft, humid wood, luggage behind them carried by two scantily clad young Chinese boys who had materialized out of nowhere.

Martin had an old school friend, John, who worked at Dodwell’s, one of the trading firms, who had promised to greet the ship. He came with two friends and offered the new arrivals freshly squeezed guava drinks. Claire pretended to sip at hers, as her mother had warned her about the cholera that was rampant in these parts. The men were bachelors and very pleasant. John, Nigel, Leslie. They explained that they all lived together in a mess—there were many, known by their companies, Dodwell’s Mess, Jardine’s Mess, et cetera, and they assured Claire and Martin that Dodwell’s threw the best parties around.

They accompanied them to the government-approved hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, where a Chinese man with a long queue, dirty white tunic, and shockingly long fingernails showed them to their room. They made an arrangement to meet for tiffin the next day and the men departed, leaving Martin and Claire sitting on the bed, exhausted and staring at one another. They didn’t know each other that well. They had been married barely four months.

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.

Read More


Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >