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Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
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A-The Piano TeacherBorn in Hong Kong, Janice Y. K. Lee graduated from Harvard and worked as a literary editor for Elle magazine before returning to her native land. This is her debut novel.

The Story: In 1952, 28-year-old Claire Pendleton, clumsy and plain, escapes rural England and spinsterhood by marrying a man she doesn’t love and moving with him to Hong Kong. At first, she is alternately fascinated and repulsed by her exotic surroundings, but she blooms in the tropical heat. After taking a job teaching piano to the indifferent daughter of a wealthy Chinese couple, Victor and Melody Chen, she embarks on a passionate affair with the Chens’ sophisticated and enigmatic British chauffeur, Will Truesdale. But Will is a broken man haunted by the past and a previous love affair, and Claire soon learns that the horrors of the Japanese occupation in 1941 continue to cast an ominous shadow over the present.
Viking. 336 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0670020486

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[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. Evocative, poignant and skillfully crafted, The Piano Teacher is more than an epic tale of war and a tangled, tortured love story." Jessica Reaves

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Strong, fresh characters and an exotic Hong Kong setting make Janice Lee’s debut historical novel a pleasure to read. Because she grew up in Hong Kong and is living there again after spending many years in the United States, the author is able to provide rich details on setting and nuances about society that an outsider might miss." Anne Morris

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Unexpected yet plausible plot twists occur, in fact, in both story lines, lending the novel an overall undercurrent of suspense. Perhaps the book’s strongest feature is its theme: moral choice during torturous times of war is not black and white, with the result that sometimes one must strike bargains in order to survive." Katherine Bailey

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Lee has made the bold (and successful) decision to write a novel in which none of her characters are particularly endearing. … 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 … and the unsparing way Lee unravels them." Lisa Fugard

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"The plot sounds like a potboiler, but Lee’s literary skills and her underlying analysis of values and character lift the novel to a higher level. … The Piano Teacher is a compelling story; at once raw, cutting and beautiful." Sharon Martell

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"War. Love. Betrayal. The harsh lessons of history. These are big subjects for any veteran writer, and yet, in her first novel, Janice Y. K. Lee confronts them admirably. … There is something altogether haunting here." Marie Arana

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"[The] separate stories [of 1952 and 1941] converge clumsily, via awkward exposition and artificial tableaux. Even so, the novel is sustained by elegant prose and a terrific sense of place." Ellen Kanner

Critical Summary

Most critics expressed surprise that a debut novel could be as compelling and self-assured as The Piano Teacher. Lee’s flawed, colorful characters, although initially unlikeable, increasingly endear themselves to readers as the secrets of the past unfold, and her vivid descriptions of Hong Kong evoke the rich sights, sounds, and smells of that bygone, foreign world. Though the Washington Post complained that "the prose rarely sings," other reviewers praised its simplicity and grace. Critics noted a few other flaws—a jumpy narrative, some anachronisms, and some clichés—but these were considered minor and entirely forgivable in a new novelist displaying such promise. In the end, this "sweeping, immensely entertaining" (Chicago Tribune) novel captures the grandeur and brutality of human nature in times of war.

Cited by the Critics

Empire of the Sun: | J. G. Ballard (1984): Drawing on his own experiences during World War II, Ballard tells the story of a young English boy imprisoned in an internment camp in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

The Singapore Grip | J. G. Farrell (1978): In this uproarious spoof on cultural mores, classes, and nations, the British Empire crumbles while the expatriate community in Singapore makes merry on the eve of World War II.

The Quiet American | Graham Greene (1955): In this captivating classic, the life of British war correspondent Tom Fowler, on assignment in Vietnam in the 1950s, is turned upside down with the arrival of a naïve American aid worker.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Why does Claire steal from the Chens? Why does she stop doing it?

2. Part of Claire’s attraction to Will is that he allows her to be someone different than she had always been. Have you ever been drawn to a person or a situation because it offered you the opportunity to reinvent yourself?

3. The amahs are a steady but silent presence throughout the book. Imagine Trudy and Will’s relationship and then Claire and Will’s affair from their point of view and discuss.

4. Trudy was initially drawn to Will because of his quiet equanimity and Will to Claire because of her innocence. Yet those are precisely the qualities each loses in the course of their love affairs. What does this say about the nature of these relationships? Would Will have been attracted to a woman like Claire before Trudy?

5. What is the irony behind Claire’s adoration of the young Princess Elizabeth?

6. Were Dominick and Trudy guilty of collaboration, or were they simply trying to survive? Do their circumstances absolve them of their actions?

7. Mary, Tobias’s mother, and one of Will’s fellow prisoners in Stanley, does not take advantage of her job in the kitchen to steal more food for her son. Yet she prostitutes herself to preserve him. Is Tobias’s physical survival worth the psychological damage she’s inflicting?

8. Did Trudy give her emerald ring and Locket to Melody? How much did Melody really know?

9. How do Ned Young’s experiences parallel Trudy’s?

10. Did Will fail Trudy? Was his decision to remain in Stanley rather than be with her on the outside—as he believes—an act of cowardice?

11. Would Locket be better off knowing the truth about her parentage?

12. What would happen if Trudy somehow survived and came back to Will? Could they find happiness together?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.