Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Piano Teacher

The Piano TeacherThe Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A strangely compelling book, considering that I didn't really care much for the main characters. Lots of rich descriptive detail about ex-pat and upper crust Chinese life in colonial Hong Kong, and life in the camp under Japanese occupation. In this sense the setting was richly written, but I cannot say the same for the characters.

The relationship between the jaded and cynical middle-aged man Will Truesdale with the recently arrived ingénue Claire Pendleton is somewhat inexplicable. If Will wants to find someone who is nothing like the woman he lost, Trudy Liang, then he achieves that purpose, but the reasons why he focuses his attention on Claire in particular are never made particularly clear. In fact he despises her naivety and romantic innocence.

Despite the title, this book is about Will, not about Claire the piano teacher. Claire is merely used as a device to reveal the story about how Will lost Trudy, or at least why he feels that he lost her because of his inability to protect her. Trudy, however, was always the wiser, savvier one, who understood the subtleties of Hong Kong life and what the Japanese occupation entailed. Will was always over his head, both in the society and the relationship.

That Trudy was also vulnerable. Born of a Chinese father and Portuguese mother, she was considered a Eurasian, and was never accepted by Chinese or British society, although she was tolerated for her wealth, extravagance and cutting wit. Her character is reflected in her physical appearance: whippet-thin, sharp, angular, strong and yet brittle, a contrast to the plump, complacent English matrons, or the taitais of Chinese high society. The disappearance of her mother at a young age, and her father's removal to Macao early on in the war, underline her lack of support and vulnerability.

Trudy's reasons for seducing Will are as vague and his reasons for seducing Claire. Will appears to be a cynic and disillusioned with life, as someone who has had no control over his destiny. His urge seems to be to destroy Claire's naivety, innocence, and bland beauty in revenge for his own loss. In the intensity of the relationship Claire realizes the falseness of her marriage to Martin. She has used him to escape from the tedium of her middle class existence and now she is seduced by the exotic tropical ambiance of Hong Kong. Several people remark her how English women usually wilt in the heat, but Claire is flourishing. She allows herself to explore the darker, sultrier side of her personality.

Trudy was an interesting character, as was her cousin Dominick, and Victor and Melody Chen. Unfortunately the main characters in the book, Will Truesdale and Claire Pendleton are not that interesting.

The need to wrap up the story and reveal the mystery produces an ending that is forced and contrived. The characters had great potential and deserved better handling than this.

Some inexplicable details in the story:
-Why was Will attracted to Claire?
-Why would Edwina Storch think it appropriate to tell Claire the secret of the Crown Collection, and reveal the story of Will and Trudy?
-How could it possibly be construed that Will was blackmailing the Chens?
-If Victor Chen were worried that Will might reveal secrets from his past, why wouldn't Chen have him killed? It wouldn't be the first time that he arranged for someone to go missing.

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