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Exotic Hong Kong takes center stage in this sumptuous novel, set in the 1940s and '50s. It's a city teeming with people, sights, sounds, and smells, and it's home to a group of foreign nationals who enjoy the good life among the local moneyed set, in a tight-knit social enclave distanced from the culture at large. Comfortable, clever, and even a bit dazzling, they revel in their fancy dinners and fun parties. But their sheltered lives take an abrupt turn after the Japanese occupation, and though their reactions are varied -- denial, resistance, submission -- the toll it takes on all is soon laid bare.
Enter Claire Pendleton from London. Months after her husband is transferred to Hong Kong in 1951, she accepts a position as a piano teacher to the daughter of a wealthy couple, the Chens. Claire begins to see the appeal of the sweltering city and is soon taken in by the Chen's driver, the curiously underutilized Will Truesdale. A handsome charmer with a mysterious limp, Will appears to be the perfect companion for Claire, who's often left to her own devices. But a further examination leaves her with more questions than answers.
An intricately woven tale of lives changed by historical events, Lee's debut brings this hothouse flower of a city alive with passion, and imagines characters both unforgettable and tragic.
(Spring 2009 Selection)
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
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
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.
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 www.blackstoneaudio.com; the Viking hc received a starred review, LJ10/1/08.-Ed.]
Denise A. Garofalo
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."
"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."
“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."
"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."
“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."
"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."
"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."
“Compelling . . . A persuasive re-creation of a time and place.”
Read an Excerpt
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 in the Department of Water Services. Churchill had ended the 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.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE PIANO TEACHER Copyright © Janice Y. K. Lee, 2009