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The Piano Teacher: A Novel Paperback – November 17, 2009

3.5 out of 5 stars 214 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Former Elle editor Lee delivers a standout debut dealing with the rigors of love and survival during a time of war, and the consequences of choices made under duress. Claire Pendleton, newly married and arrived in Hong Kong in 1952, finds work giving piano lessons to the daughter of Melody and Victor Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple. While the girl is less than interested in music, the Chens' flinty British expat driver, Will Truesdale, is certainly interested in Claire, and vice versa. Their fast-blossoming affair is juxtaposed against a plot line beginning in 1941 when Will gets swept up by the beautiful and tempestuous Trudy Liang, and then follows through his life during the Japanese occupation. As Claire and Will's affair becomes common knowledge, so do the specifics of Will's murky past, Trudy's motivations and Victor's role in past events. The rippling of past actions through to the present lends the narrative layers of intrigue and more than a few unexpected twists. Lee covers a little-known time in Chinese history without melodrama, and deconstructs without judgment the choices people make in order to live one more day under torturous circumstances. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

This cinematic tale of two love affairs in mid-century Hong Kong shows colonial pretensions tainted by wartime truths. Will Truesdale, a rootless, handsome Briton, arrives in the colony in 1941, and is swept up by Trudy Liang, the blithe and glamorous daughter of a Shanghai millionaire and a Portuguese beauty. They quickly become inseparable, their days spent in a whirl of parties and champagne, but when the Japanese invade, Will is interned and Trudy resorts to increasingly Faustian methods to survive. After the war, Claire Pendleton, the na�ve wife of a British civil servant, arrives. She begins giving piano lessons to the daughter of a rich Chinese couple, and falls in love with their wounded and inscrutable driver: Will. Lee unfolds each story, and flits between them, with the brisk grace and discretion of the society she describes�a world in which horrors are adumbrated but seldom told.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Third Printing edition (November 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143116533
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143116530
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (214 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #20,059 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee tells the story of English piano teacher Claire's involvement in a complex web of lies, love, politics and war in 1950's Hong Kong.
- Lee does a nice job describing the tumultuous Hong Kong social elite pre, post and during World War II. Her quiet, elegant descriptive prose is definitely her strength.
- The reader must respect Lee's decision to not use the standard linear timeline most novels use.
- The treatment of nationality is interesting as well, considering the time period (1940s and 1950s) in which the book is set. The upper class was undeniably hypocritical in their discriminations; everything boiled down to money and status.
- Will Truesdale's character has a lot of depth (he truly is the main character of the novel, despite the title). He is the most human out of all the characters; I found myself very sympathetic towards him throughout the novel.

What Rains on Lee's Parade
- Her desire to be mysterious is too obvious; the vague dialogue is often unrealistic. This obviousness is also a fault when Lee does decide to divulge vital information; these portions of the book do not flow well at all.
- The novel is entitled The Piano Teacher, yet it truly isn't about her. She is solely device to divulge information; I think the novel could have actually done more effectively without her. The attempt to view the local situation from an outsider's perspective ends up more of a hindrance upon the reader.
- Lee doesn't develop the relationships and characters enough, with the exception of Will. Granted some characters need to be flat to show the trivialness of the Hong Kong upper class, some of the characters should have been given more time.
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Format: Hardcover
The Piano Teacher is one of those novels that are the written equivilent of a two star movie. Not a complete waste of time, not the worst book ever written, not the best, just two stars. A C+ kind of experience when there was the potential for much, much more. After finishing it, I wanted a Book Club discussion to help me through my two star feelings. Preferably a club member with historical knowledge of the complex relations between Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan and the U.K. during the time period of the novel. So much of the book just didn't hang together for me. I read the pivotal chapter detailing the confrontation between the Chens and Truesdale several times to see if I was missing something. The best part of the book was the beautiful cover photograph. If only the rest of it had lived up to that promise!
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Loving history as I do, this novel, set in WWII and post-WWII Hong Kong, would seem to be right up my alley. I also love books that have two stories molded into one book. Then you have the enticing cover. Even with one of these three, I would tend to be drawn to this novel. With all three, it would be a no-brainer. This was the book for me!

That said, I never could get fully engaged either with Claire's story or with Will and Trudy's. Although Claire would seem to be the more sympathetic of the three, none of the main characters were all that likeable. I tried with this book, I really did. But at my age there are too many other really good books out there to try. Librarian, author, and radio personality Nancy Pearl gave me permission to stop reading a book after 50 pages if it was, for want of a better word, boring. I even skimmed a bit farther into the book until I ended up skipping to the end. Thank you Nancy Pearl. You have saved me from many a worthless hour. Instead, I picked up another book with an Asian theme that also has a Hong Kong connection.

I am sorry to have to say I was not able to finish this book as it had all the hallmarks of a great read. So despite all the hoopla and the good reviews about The Piano Teacher, I can't, in all good conscience, recommend it.
7 Comments 94 of 110 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Hardcover
Ms Lee has delivered a remarkable novel, in which she brilliantly interweaves two plots, both set in Hong Kong: one in the 1940s, right before and during the war, the other in the 1950s. In the first part of the book, a chapter in the 1940s alternates with a chapter in the 1950s, building tension until the war outbreak, while the focus in the second part is on the 1940s and the horrors of the internment camp, and the third part is mostly, but not exclusively, about the 1950s. Many of the same characters appear in both subplots, and it is fascinating to see what has happened to them in those 10 years.

The novel is about compromise and integrity in times of survival, and how the war brings out people's true personality. (This trite summary doesn't do the novel any justice, but the author excels at surprising the reader with little details and subplots that underline her point.) It is also about love, the love between Trudy and Will (the affair between Claire and Will 10 years later never comes across as more than a shallow pastime that will come to an end one way or another), and Will's gnawing regrets.

The point of view is third-person throughout, following Will in the 1940s and Claire in the 1950s. The author focuses on dialogue and richly textured descriptions of settings and clothes - it is very easy to become engrossed in the novel because of her vivid writing. She doesn't, however, spend much time convincing us Trudy (the Eurasian) and Will (the Englishman) are truly in love. Trudy comes across as an opportunist, and her personality seems too different from Will's for the relationship to last.

I was therefore very surprised when I reached the last few chapters of the book to read that they had truly been in love and that Will felt that he had failed Trudy.
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