The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher

by Janice Y. K. Lee


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"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

The New York Times bestseller 

Janice Y.K. Lee's latest novel, The Expatriates, is now available from Penguin

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143116530
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/17/2009
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 241,832
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Janice Y. K. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong and graduated from Harvard College. A former features editor at Elle and Mirabella magazines, she currently lives in Hong Kong with her husband and children.

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.


Excerpted from "The Piano Teacher"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Janice Y. K. Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide


Miss Wilma Mabry is the resident Piano Teacher of Swan's Knob, a small, quiet southern town where very little ever changes—that is until one pivotal week in which Swan's Know and Miss Wilma's life are turned inside out. Part character study, part mystery, The Piano Teacher combines elements of suspense and tragedy with honest, sometimes bittersweet meditations on humanity: our motivations, our actions, and the consequences of those actions.

Over the years, Miss Wilma has taught piano to nearly all of the town's youth and intends to continue doing so as comfortably and quietly as she can. When her daughter Sarah and granddaughter Starling return home what can Miss Wilma do but enjoy the visit? However, when both Sarah's husband and her lover separately arrive in Swan's Knob, just hours after a murder has shaken this small community, Wilma's peaceful routine is threatened indefinitely.

The other residents of Swan's Knob feel threatened as well—if not by the cold-blooded murder of resident lawman Clem Baker, then by the arrival of Miss Wilma's beatnik son-in-law Harper and Sarah's Native American lover, Jonah. Wilma, in the midst of her own budding romance with perennial bachelor Roy Swan, strives to keep her family together and safe while investigating the murder—a crime she has more ties to than she ever thought possible. With the aid of Roy, Wilma fights to clear both Harper and Jonah of suspicion in the murder and uncovers damaging and revelatory information about her one of her oldest friends, and adversaries, Lily Mae Strong. At the same time, Wilma struggles to bridge the ever-widening gap in her relationship with her daughter as Sarah tries to make one of the most important decisions of her life. Lynn York peoples the fictional town of Swan's Knob with a full cast of complex and compelling characters, and relays the events of their lives with graceful prose. The Piano Teacher is an engrossing tale of love, courage, transformation, and renewal.



"Eudora Welty meets Miss Marple in this sweet, sexy Southern tour de force. Literate and funny, The Piano Teacherannounces a brilliant future for debut novelist Lynn York." —Lee Smith, author of The Last Girls

"This gentle, funny, remarkably sexy novel marks Lynn York as a writer of both force and delicacy. I adored the whole thing." —Haven Kimmel, author of The Solace of Leaving Early and A Girl Named Zippy



Lynn York was born and raised in North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and at the University of Texas at Austin, she lived in Washington, D.C., working in the international telecommunications industry until small children, the promise of decent vegetables and a yard with grass brought her back to North Carolina in 1995. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with her two children, Anna Lee and Will.



Creating an entire town from scratch is no small feat. What inspired you to create Swan's Knob? What kind of process did you go through to create the town's physical landscape, as well as its many residents?

My family moved around quite a bit within the State of North Carolina while I was growing up—so Swan's Knob has a little piece of every place I've lived. However, I have to admit that the fictional town was mostly inspired by Pilot Mountain, NC (population 2,500). This is a beautiful hamlet in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where my grandparents lived throughout my childhood. My own family moved to the town when I was ten, and I spent my adolescence there.

Writing The Piano Teacher allowed me to revisit that experience—though I was guided less by the literal map of streets and houses than the landscape of my own memory. That meant that I felt free to borrow bits and pieces of Pilot Mountain and then imagine the rest. The Coach House Restaurant, for example, where Roy and Wilma go on their first date, was a real restaurant, my favorite place to eat growing up, through the space is now inhabited by a tanning salon. The items that populate small town social occasions- grosgrain bows and pound cake, Jell-O molds and dyed carnations—these are things that mark my particular experience, and it was so much fun to take them out (like fancy dinnerware) and use them again. Odd and seemingly random memories ended up in my book as well, like the fearful sight of the town's mortician passing by in his hearse that also doubled as an ambulance, though the red-headed father and son funeral directors of the novel, Randall and Randy Snow, are completely made-up characters.

Once I had Miss Wilma, Swan's Knob seemed the natural place for her to live. I mined my memory and my imagination for the physical details that would help me tell the story. Often when I reached out for these things, an image or an occurrence that I had not recalled in years would surface. For example, early on in the novel, I had Miss Wilma standing out in front of her house in the dark watching the Snow's ambulance drive by. As I tried to decide just what might have happened to call the ambulance out, I remembered — in the late sixties, during the time I lived in Pilot Mountain, two of the town's policemen were killed, an awful and gruesome event that shook the town for weeks. In this real life tragedy, the fate of poor Deputy Clem Baker was sealed, providing me with a confluence of events that would forever change Wilma's life.

After I had written most of the novel, I looked up the newspaper accounts of the murders, and of course, the actual story is entirely different from my own. Those brave policemen in Pilot Mountain were family men, mourned by wives and children. They were killed by young men from the other side of the state out on a crime spree, who were caught just a few hours later. Still, the occurrence of such an event was a natural springboard that allowed me to explore not only the inner workings of a single family, but the dynamics of an entire community.

Wilma is a strong female protagonist, although she does not appear to be one at the book's onset. Did you map out her development, or the development of other characters such as Sarah, or did the characters surprise you in any ways?

I wish I could give you a good roadmap about exactly how I came to transform Miss Wilma from the buttoned-up piano teacher worried even about the marks she's made on her students' sheet music into the woman, who in the end, subdues a murderer with a kick of her Aigner pump. In truth, once I created her, she surprised me at every turn.

I do know that initially she was inspired by a piano teacher that I had as a child. This teacher was a fixture in our town and one of those strict, steely-eyed people who can strike terror in the heart of any child (or grown-up, for that matter). Miss Wilma's best student, James (I've forgotten his real name), had the lesson time just before mine on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. James was a wonderful pianist, and on some days, I could almost put aside my own terror and simply enjoy his playing. I noticed over the course of the year that James was preparing to go to college as a music major and perhaps for that reason, Miss Wilma was as mean (if not meaner) to him than she was to me.

As I began to write about this teacher, I remembered a particular lesson time in the spring—just before James was to go for his music scholarship audition. On this day, the day when Miss Wilma was having the young man do his final run-through, I arrived at my lesson to find that Miss Wilma was entirely changed. There was not one ounce of meanness in her. She was completely in a dither—I can remember her eyes fluttering—she seemed to alternate between girlish excitement and nervous mothering. James had his family's old, old, station wagon parked out front and Miss Wilma kept asking him, "Do you have enough gas? Do you have money? Oh, do you have your sheet music?" Understand—I was ten, maybe eleven at the time, but there was something about that moment that seemed important to me. I was seeing something rare and unknown in this person whom I thought I knew through and through.

For whatever reason, it was this powerful memory that came to me when I began to write the first scene about Miss Wilma. In about an hour, I wrote three short pages that were the beginning of my novel. Of course, by the time I got to the bottom of the first page, the Miss Wilma I was writing about was not the real Miss Wilma, but someone else altogether, a character with a life, a history, a personality all her own. However, Miss Wilma Mabry — the life of the character — was born in the memory of that particular moment and somehow propelled forward by it. The scene itself—those first three pages—survive in the novel (much revised, of course) as the beginning of Chapter 2, which begins exactly as I began that first sketch: "Of all Miss Wilma's students, James Moody was the prize…"

Everything in The Piano Teacher grew from that first scene: the other characters, their relationships with Miss Wilma, the town of Swan's Knob, and even the plot. All of these things were really a function of Miss Wilma's character, an outgrowth of it. During the time I was writing the book and to this day, I think of her mostly as a real person—in much the way you might think of a beloved aunt who has long ago passed away. You can no longer actually touch her, have a conversation together, but you can fully imagine a conversation with her about any topic, you can remember exactly her touch, and she might also, as Wilma did, visit you in your dreams and lecture you about the state of your wardrobe.

I don't think I'm the first writer to say that once you've found a character like Wilma Mabry, you do best to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Do you have a background in music or did you have to do a great deal of research to be able to portray Wilma and Harper's musical expertise? I was a student of music from about third grade all the way through high school—I took piano lessons, sang in the church choir, and yes, marched in the high school band with my clarinet. I enjoyed all of these things, but I don't think any of my music teachers would say that I was their "prize" student. In fact, I make a little cameo appearance, along with my sister, in the book in Chapter 6. Like the two twins, whom Harper calls "Plink" and "Plunk," we took piano lessons together for a short (very short) time. This required us to play the lesson piece in unison, sitting side by side on the piano bench — a recipe for endless bickering, and of course, I was always the one that messed up …

These days I am simply a lover of music—and I live in an area of the country where we have a variety of live music from old-time music to jazz, gospel to Handel. I made a special point of getting myself to lots of performances while I was writing the book, and I tried to sit up close so that I could remind myself just what it feels like to be a performer. Since I no longer play music myself, it was fun to be able to choose music for my characters—the wedding music, the hymns, and especially, James Moody's recital piece. Chopin's "Revolutionary" Etude is one of my favorite piano pieces. I was never skilled enough to play such a thing, so it was fun to write about someone else playing it so perfectly.

One of my favorite scenes in the book is the one where Harper and Sarah are having a heated conversation, and Harper begins to hear argument as some kind of jazz improvisation—"He was up to jam, man, he was launched. He just had to follow the changes right on out there, dwouda-dwoodle-dee-dee …" (page 218). As I was writing that chapter, I tried to hear the conversation like Harper would hear it—trumpet riffs and all. I called up a musician friend of mine when I was finished and read it to him. Now that was an interesting phone call—the two of us scat singing, trying out different combinations of letters to get the feeling of music down in words (if you can call "dwouda" and "dwoodle" words).

Key characters in The Piano Teacher undergo some sort of transformation over the course of the novel and as a result, at the novel's end, both Wilma and Sarah are taking "second chances" at romances. Why was this theme important to you?

I am a big believer in second chances, and third and fourth—and that applies to romance and just about every aspect of life. Because my family moved around a bit as I was growing up, I had the chance to reinvent myself—new attitude, new hairdo, new interests - in each new place. I had varying degrees of success. In one town, I'd be a complete dud because I was a bad soccer player, in another, I'd be a social butterfly because I was a decent swimmer or I'd be wildly popular when the most popular girl took me under her wing. I think this experience in my childhood made me a bit more open to change in my adult life. I've worked at a number of jobs—publishers' rep, marketing manager, consultant, accountant, construction project manager—and I lived in Dallas, Austin, and Washington, DC before coming home to North Carolina. After a while, it sunk in that life was full of bends in the road, and I guess that I have made a standing bet that around the bend, there just might be a great new job (like writing novels …) or a wonderful new beau.

And as for that second chance at romance, I have to confess that the trials and preoccupations of my life do sometimes make their way into my writing. I wrote The Piano Teacher during a sad period when I was going through a divorce, so as I imagined Wilma and Sarah getting their second chances at romance, I think I was reminding myself that I might eventually get my chance as well. I am certain that there is a Roy—or wow, maybe even a Jonah — out there for me.

Will we see more novels about the residents of Swan's Knob? Will Wilma and Roy play any part in them?

I am happy to report that Wilma and Roy are alive (fictionally, at least) and well (for the moment) and living in Swan's Knob. I am busy working on a second Swan's Knob book that takes place about ten years after the events in The Piano Teacher.


  • "The whole thing got off to a bad start when Miss Wilma unceremoniously ran over a squirrel in the Strongs' driveway, right in front of the porch" (page 1). So opens The Piano Teacher. The death of the squirrel is not only a tragicomic beginning to Martha Strong's wedding, but to the novel as a whole. Discuss how foreshadowing is used to reveal Sarah's pregnancy or Lily's affair with Clem. Where else is foreshadowing used effectively in the book? How does York use levity to counter moments of tension or tragedy in the novel?
  • Fictional Swan's Knob is a small, rural southern town. Harper, comparing it to Greenwich Village and Sante Fe, finds it lacking in many respects. Sarah returns to Swan's Knob to reflect and rest. Wilma finds it claustrophobic at several points in the novel. Discuss how each character's sense of place affects your impression of Swan's Knob.
  • Both Wilma and Harper are musicians—Wilma teaches music and Harper researches it. Compare and contrast the role music plays in their respective lives. Is there any similarity between Wilma and Harper apart from their expertise in music, particularly in relation to Sarah?
  • Jonah's arrival in Swan's Knob causes a stir in the town, and affects the dynamic of Wilma's suddenly large and bustling household. Discuss Jonah and Harper's interaction in Wilma's kitchen (chapters 4 & 5) and what this scene conveys about their characters. How does York avoid stereotyping in her depiction of the Native American Jonah and the womanizing Harper?
  • What kind of reaction does the town have to Jonah's arrival? Are there undercurrents of racism evident in their behavior, or would the townspeople be suspicious of any stranger who appeared on the eve of a murder?
  • Analyze Sarah's mental state as conveyed through her actions on the day she spends by herself, from the moment she drives off in Wilma's LTD in the middle of the night, to her breakfast in the TipTop Diner, to her break-in at the home in the mountains. What important information do we learn about Sarah? What kind of a woman is she? How does she compare to her mother?
  • Discuss Sarah's relationship with Harper: in particular, Harper's betrayal of Sarah in New York City and the subsequent conception of Starling. What motivated Sarah to stay with Harper? Commitment? Guilt? Passivity?
  • Parenting is central to this novel. Discuss how its ramifications are explored in light of the following relationships: Wilma and Sarah; Harry and Sarah; Sarah and Starling; Harper and Starling; Harry's father and Lily Mae; Harry's father and Harry.
  • What imprint has Harry's suicide left on Wilma and Sarah? Discuss the factors that drove him to shoot himself—his relationship (innocent or incestuous?) with Lily Strong, the loss of his business, and his alcoholism. How differently did Wilma handle this first tumultuous chain of events, compared to her actions in the present-day?
  • Roy has obviously been enamored of Wilma for years, but for Wilma the romance comes "after fifteen years of nothing, fifteen years of not even thinking about any living man on earth. She was totally unprepared" (page 173). Discuss the development of Wilma's romance with Roy Swan. She rebuffs his initial advances, and then falls for him after their date at The Coach House. What characterizes the courtship that ensues? Compare Wilma's relationship with Roy to Sarah's relationships with Harper and Jonah.
  • "It was all new, her life, completely new and hard somehow—she had to admit that, hard—because everything, everything would have to be formed again" (page 195). How does this passage (intended to describe the effect of Roy's kiss) encompass all of Wilma's relationships? What new relationship does she form with Sarah? With Starling? With Lily Mae? And even though he's been gone for fifteen years, to what extent does Wilma alter her relationship with Harry?
  • How does Wilma transform herself over the course of the novel? Does she become stronger, more competent, less fragile, more flexible? Has she always possessed these qualities or does she merely change the way people perceive her?
  • Discuss Lily Mae Strong and her actions throughout the novel. Is Avery Spivey the real villain of the novel, or is she? Does she "suffer enough" with the death of her paramour? Or is justice really served with the arrest of Avery?
  • The car ride to the courthouse pits Wilma against Clem's killer and, in a way, allows Sarah and Wilma to come to terms with one another. How does their relationship change at this point? Does Wilma damage the "new" relationship when she accidentally acknowledges Sarah's pregnancy in front of Harper?
  • Discuss Roy's decision to keep his suspicions about Harry and Lily from Wilma. In light of the implication of incest and Wilma's adoration of her deceased husband, his silence could be considered a kindness; yet, with regards to Roy and Wilma's burgeoning romance, his secrecy might also be perceived as a betrayal. What implications does this act have upon the end of the novel? Does The Piano Teacher have a "happy" ending?

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The Piano Teacher 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 256 reviews.
Readingrat More than 1 year ago
Two days ago I thought my review of this book would be quite different than it is. Two days ago I was on page 113 of this book and I was getting frustrated with the vapid characters who were either spending all their time acting the part of the privileged upper class English ex-pats in Hong Kong or (in Claire's case) stealing trinkets. Even the war-time surrender of Hong Kong to the Japanese seemed only a minor inconvenience to these people. However, a mere 13 pages later, the story rapidly grows teeth.
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.
BLUEEYEBE More than 1 year ago
It is a love story first and foremost but this poignant story within a story is so deep with the horrors of war and what it does to the people involved makes it compelling. What would YOU do to live another day? Would you want to be put to the test? This is a very meaningful novel about the choices we make and the people we love. Some are noble and good and some are unfortunate. This book is thought-provoking and very interesting. The author's research made the setting and events believable. It is a book readers can sink their teeth into and think about long after having finished it. In the early 50's, Claire Pendleton, a young English woman, finds work teaching piano to the daughter of a wealthy Hong Kong family only to find herself attracted to their British driver, Will. Her curiosity about her lover's past leads to uncovering his story of how he and those around him survived the Japanese occupation during WWII. The story within the story goes back to 1941, just before the Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor when the Americans join the war and then the Japanese invade Hong Kong. In the pre-war months, an Englishman, Will meets and begins to keep company with Trudy Liang, a Eurasian girl with a very interesting and carefree lifestyle. He becomes smitten with her against his better judgment. They fall in love, but it is a love affair that is doomed. This is a good one, one to be enjoyed but also to get a feel for "meaning". One to think about!
huckfinn37 More than 1 year ago
The Piano Teacher is boring. The characters are whiny and I didn't care what happened to them. The information about Hong Kong is interesting; but the plot is weak and disjointed. I recommend Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweeet insted.
EllyR More than 1 year ago
A compelling story of survival. A great book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Piano Teacher is wonderfully written and places the reader directly into WWII in Hong Kong. The characters are unique and thoroughly depicted through their interactions and social events. When reading this novel, I was able to escape to the 1940s and imagine life as it was in Hong Kong, while the love story was also captivating and unique to its time. The technique of switching from past to present from the perspective of two different women allowed me to engage myself in the story because I was constantly searching for the connection between the two stories. I could not put the book down at the end because the plot begins to unravel and the connections are formed. I loved the voice and tone of the characters throughout the novel and the wonderful language of the author. If you enjoy historical fiction and love stories, this book deserves a spot in your library.
piesmom More than 1 year ago
The story was good but what made this truly interesting was all the details about Hong Kong during WWII. I found the history lesson just as skillfully written as the story itself. When I think about a novel after I have finished it, then I know it is worth reading.
twerpazoid More than 1 year ago
If the boring escapades of a spoiled brat, a handsome hero, and a frustrated wife were omitted and replaced with more factual accounts of the place in time, this may have been an interesting book. I kept seeing the apologetic simpering of Janice Lee throughout the book.....zzzzzzzz. Much too obvious and frankly in my opinion not worth recommending.
reader72 More than 1 year ago
I can't believe I hadn't even heard of this book until a friend recommended it for our book club selection. Lee does a fantastic job of transporting you to Hong Kong in the 40s and 50s - you get such a sense of time and place. The characters and plot are interesting and engrossing - it is one of those books that you can't put down as you want to learn about how everything comes together. This is especially true givenm that the novel alternates between the 40s and the 50s, with hints of what has happened or what is to come interspersed creatively throughout. The book also made me want to learn much more about Japan's role in WWII - I have mostly learned about Europe during that time, not Asia.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book and was sorry when I had finished it! I am especially picky about the fiction I read and need a good engaging story before I will read fiction. Too much of the fiction today is one dimensional with unrealistic plotlines. Consequently, my reading these days is biography or memoir. I had, however, read a review of The Piano Teacher in Vogue and thought it sounded intriguing. Getting ready for a trip and looking for books to read, I happened upon The Piano Teacher and purchased it. Once I started reading, I couldn't stop. The story engages you immediately as do the characters. I was also struck by the background of the story - Hong Kong during and immediately after WWII. Now, I'm eagerly awaiting the author's next novel.
Ealasaidreads More than 1 year ago
I am a serious reader. I read this book in about three hours, thought a moment and reread from the middle. I wished it worked, the story wrapped in a story, but it simply does not. I was misled by a reviewer's remark that it was "Atmospheric." Yes, I understand Hong Kong is humid. Just like Missouri. The love story of Trudy and Will was fun, at first. The dialogue was great. Then it did not go anywhere. How could a savvy woman like Trudy allow herself to be impregnated? Is it believeable that she would act so foolishly? The there is the parallel between her and her mother, but isn't it overreaching just a tad to have Trudy mysteriously disappear? And then let us know exactely who killed her? Where is Will's rage? The love story of piano teacher and Will is awful. Is the reader to believe that Will was somehow changed by War into a man who will tell the piano teacher to stop stealing from the Chens, yet cannot keep her? And her last transformation is laughable. O, and that odd paragraph about the cousins. Was that Will rememebering? Or just a paragraph the author could not let go. Is the reader then supposed to understand everything because of this information? Or is it left in for shock value? The charasters all had such promise. And they all were as trivial as the nothing plot. The wonderful English school mistress was a terrible disappointment. Even the suicide was predictable (he was persuaded he caved?). It seems hard to believe the author spent time researching this book. For all that, and the Thank Yous, I would have expected to learn something I did not know about the War or Hong Kong or something. Perhaps I expected too much. For an atmospheric novel, please read The Historian.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although this book was not totally awful, I did not find it captivating like many of the other reviewers. I found the author's style very dull and at times hard to follow - I had to re-read many sentences to figure out what she was saying (I'm an avid reader and never have to do this). The characters were unappealing to say the least. I never felt like I wanted to understand them more - all seemed shallow and uninteresting until the last maybe 50 pages where a couple of them actually showed some depth. The only redeeming aspect of this book is the story itself. It sort of read like a movie that an author then decided to make into a book. It is a decent story and for those of you who like historical fiction, it definitely gives an interesting view of life in Hong Kong during and post WWII. For a much better read about life in Asia during WWII, I highly recommend Ten Green Bottles which is a true story about a family who escapes Vienna prior to WWII only to find themselves in yet another nightmare in Shanghai.
Aguilera-Yuma More than 1 year ago
This book will allow you to enter Hong Kong during WWII and after as seen through the eyes of the characters. If you weren't aware of what was happening in Hong Kong during this time you will find this book to be quite interesting. I loved the characters and the emotional roller coaster that many of them were on in this book. You won't be able to put it down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a very good book. I am glad that I was unaware that it went into World War II a bit because if I had I wouldn't have read it. This is a little graphic...There is a reason it is in the adult section. I think it fits the age of 15-above. I really loved the book though I could have waited a year or so to read it because of the graphics. Don't get me wrong it is not very graphic at all just a bit more than I thought thats all. In the reviews I read it didn't say anything about love scences or war ones. I just want to give people the warning I never got. Really and trully an amazing book especially for a first time writer.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
Seldom have I been so captivated, so thoroughly absorbed by a novel. This skillful author's style is easy, so unaffected that one is immediately lost in the atmosphere she creates, transported by her descriptions. You feel the moist heat of the day on your skin, inhale the rich fragrance of jasmine, see the harbor frosted with stars, and shiver with fear in the face of torture or death. To read The Piano Teacher is to enter another world, a world that soon becomes as true as your own. You are immersed in her words, your heart is touched, and your senses engaged.

Janice Y. K. Lee's narrative alternates between decades. It is 1952 when the recently married Claire Pendleton arrives in Hong Kong. Her husband, Martin, is an engineer who is to oversee the building of a reservoir. He's a rather dull sort to Claire, "She was not so attracted to him, but who was she to be picky...." Thus she had accepted his proposal.

She finds Hong Kong quite to her liking, and takes a job with the wealthy Chen family simply to pass the time. She will teach their daughter, Locket, how to play the piano.

Will Truesdale, an Englishman, arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1940s. He soon met the elegant Trudy Laing, a striking, enigmatic Eurasian girl. She was the belle of Hong Kong, one who loved beautiful clothes, expensive parties, and to tease. Will fell madly in love. Their liaison was cut short by the invasion of the Japanese.

In short time Will, along with other English, American and Dutch, are sent to an interment camp where horror upon horror is visited upon them. Trudy is left to fend for herself in a war torn city, attempting to do so by ingratiating herself with Otsubo, the vicious head of the gendarmerie. She pleads with Will to let her use influence to get him out of the camp. He refuses, whether due to honor or fear he does not know.

After the war he meets Claire who learns to care for him little knowing his past and what an effect it has had upon him. Or, for that matter does she know of how the Chan family has impacted his life.

Lee has adroitly reconstructed pages of history peopling them with fictional characters who make choices for good or ill under the most dire circumstances. The Piano Teacher is not to be forgotten. Janice Y. K. Lee's writing is to be celebrated.

Highly recommended.

- Gail Cooke
momgee More than 1 year ago
It is so hard to believe that this is a debut novel. I found it wonderfully written and I was drawn in immediately. The story starts out in 1952 as we are introduced to Claire Pendleton, recent arrival in Hong Kong with her much older husband, Martin. Claire has been hired by the socially prominent Chen family to teach Locket Chen the piano. When the Chen family invites Claire and her husband to a party, she meets Will Truesdale, the Chen chauffer. The Chen family and Will Truesdale figure prominently in this novel from the beginning to the end.

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 became familiar with her new home. With Les's 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*****
iluvvideo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Going in, I was pretty ambivalent about reading this book. I'm not usually someone who does well with romance stories. But looking at the glowing reviews I decided to give it a try. Am I glad I did!The story is told in two time lines. First you're introduced to Hong Kong society, just before and during the Japanese occupation at the beginning of the war. You meet Trudy, a fascinating Eurasian socialite who introduces Will to Hong Kong society. Parties and other engagements dominate their lives. Then you meet a fresh off the boat Claire, a young woman who joins her husband to build a life at his new job. She gets employment as the piano teacher of the teenage daughter of a wealthy couple. Claire desires to escape her humdrum life and experience the more exciting life of high society.The story flows smoothly between these scenarios as the characters make decisions that skirt morality in the struggle to survive. What will prove stronger? Love or practicality?
littlebookworm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Over a span of ten years in Hong Kong, Will Truesdale falls in love with one woman before World War II and has an affair with another one after. When he arrives in society, he meets Trudi Canavan, an enigmatic, enchanting woman who somehow chooses him to take under her wing and they begin a passionate love affair. At the other end of the scale we have Claire Pendleton, a married piano teacher who generally reminded me of a mouse, and who can't get enough of Will. It seems that Claire is merely a foil to get us to what happened with Will and Trudi during the war, which is where this story really lies.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.
CarolynSchroeder on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was a struggle for me to get through, despite its short length. The writing itself is fine, not exceptional but not poor either. The problem for me was that all of the characters were so incredibly apathetic. Because of that, it was hard for me to care about them and what they did. I couldn't wait until their stories were over. In addition, they were all so mean-spirited, back-stabbing and unkind. One of the big points the book tries to make is how humans are different before and then after a grevious war or extreme circumstances; and how each person differs in the time of crises (how some cower to the oppressor(s) and some rise against). However, I never felt these particular characters proved that ~ they were pathetic both before, during and after WWII. Also, I am not sure the central story between Trudy and Will was a love story at all ~ it was more about how they did NOT love each other and went through great pains to put each other down and hurt each other. I will say that the locale, the history and the culture of 1940s/50s Hong Kong really came alive. The author clearly has a love for the area. It was also very interesting reading about the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and the "camps" for the foreigners, something that is not written about much. The author has talent and interesting ideas, just needs better characters to pull those things off well. Overall, tepidly recommended only if someone would enjoy reading about Hong Kong during and the decade after WWII, because it is the best character in the novel.
mhleigh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Piano Teacher tells two stories, both focused around the character of Will Truesdale. In 1942, Will arrives in Hong Kong from England, and promptly falls into an affair with a beautiful, exotic Eurasian socialite, Trudy Liang. As the two become increasingly serious, their relationship is threatened by the approaching Japanese and the threat of war. In 1952, Will meets Claire Pendleton, the newlywed piano teacher from England. Will is the driver for the Chinese family whose daughter she teaches, and the two begin an affair. As the distance between the two time period shrinks, more questions are asked than answered. What is the fate of the friends Will had in 1942? How did he turn from social butterfly to chauffeur? What became of Trudy? 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.
Airycat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I don't think the piano teacher was the main character of this story. She seemed a bit bland. There was nothing about her that made me either love or hate her. Will seems more the main character. Although I can see that it is because of Will that Claire changes, his and Trudy's, stories are much more interesting. Trudy is such a complete opposite to Claire, that I couldn't help wonder why Will was even slightly interested in Claire. There is also the issue of the Herrend rabbit mentioned in the first sentence of the story. That and the other items seem to have a great importance to Claire that never quite plays out. Lee doesn't forget about them, but the way she handles it seems a let down. 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.
ccayne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
How does war change you; what will you do to survive? This book shows what a group of expats do in Hong Kong when the Japanese occupy their city. Claire comes to Hong Kong an innocent, Trudy is Eurasian and far from innocent and Will Truesday is involved with both of them - Trudy pre-war and during and Claire, post war. Lee wrote this in short vignettes. It was a powerful book.
pdebolt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this to be a remarkable book, particularly for a debut novel. The main characters are fascinating, and connecting them through the juxtaposition of ten years, which encompasses the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, is masterful. 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.
kysmom02 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Piano Teacher is a story of a love affair during war times of the 1940's in Hong Kong. The story begins by introducing Clair and Martin. They movee to Hong Kong in the early 1950's when Martin's job transfered him there. Clair doesn't work at first, but is then hired to be a piano teacher for a young girl of a well known and wealthy family.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.
LynnB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this story of what you will (or won't) do for love, and what you will do to survive in war time, and in everyday life.Claire Pendleton arrives in Hong Kong as a newlywed in 1952 and becomes part of the British society in the city. She begins an affair with Will Truesdale, who has been in Hong Kong much longer than she.The story moves back and forth between the current time period (1952-3) and the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong ten years earlier. As we learn about the characters and what happened to them during the war, we also follow their current lives and see how they were affected by choices made by, or for, them a decade ago. It is interesting that, as the two stories come together, the biggest impact is on the one character who wasn't present during the war: Clair, the title piano teacher.I found the book got better as it went along, unlike so many that kind of fizzle out. I was drawn more and more into the story and in trying to put the pieces together. I thought the ending was realistic: slightly sad and arguably inevitable given the characters involved. Well done!
mmhorman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book takes place in Hong Kong in the 1950's. Claire is a young bride from Britain who is already becoming dissatisfied with her marriage. While in Hong Kong Claire teaches piano to Locket Chen, a young Chinese girl, who is quite indifferent to her lessons. Claire quickly becomes involved in an affair with the family chauffeur, Will Truesdale. Also paradoxically Claire begins "accidentally" stealing items from the Chen household. The title is somewhat misleading because the book is more about the Will Truesdale's life in Hong Kong and his earlier affair with Trudy, a wealthy eurasian woman. This was a difficult review to write and upon reflecting on that, I realized that the reason I found it hard to write this review was because, although I found the book to be well written, I could not connect with the character's, especially Claire. Claire seemed to me to be a particularly insipid character and I especially found it difficult to relate to her "stealing problem"