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The Piano Teacher

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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.

328 pages, Hardcover

First published January 13, 2009

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About the author

Janice Y.K. Lee

5 books320 followers
Janice Y. K. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong, the child of Korean immigrants. She went to the United States for school and graduated from Harvard College with a degree in English and American Literature and Language.

After college she moved to New York and worked for several years as an editor at Elle and Mirabella magazines before getting an MFA from Hunter College and starting her first novel. The Piano Teacher was published to critical acclaim from the New York Times, People, and O magazine, among others. It spent 19 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was a Richard and Judy Summer Read pick (UK), and was translated into 26 languages worldwide.

Janice’s writing has appeared in ELLE, Mirabella, Glamour, and Travel and Leisure, as well as numerous other publications.

She lives in New York City with her husband and four children.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,060 reviews
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,101 reviews7,202 followers
September 17, 2023
We are taken to a different place and time: the almost-forgotten Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in World War II which took place eight hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.


For the high-flying British citizens who lived a life of carefree excess in Hong Kong – drinks and parties at the British clubs and hotels every day -- the war hit them like a brick. They were forced into inhumane internment camps where hunger, squalor, cold and filth contrasted with their old life.

There are three protagonists in this story and it’s hard to figure out which one is the main one. There’s the beautiful young siren of Chinese-Portuguese ancestry who wraps men around her finger. Willing to do anything to preserve her lifestyle, she becomes a collaborator with the Japanese.

Then there’s the prim and proper piano teacher who came to Hong Kong after the war (1950s) straight out of a small British village.


Connecting these two threads of the story is the hard-bitten stoic Brit, a tough-guy caricature escaped from a detective story. He had affairs with the beautiful woman in the 1940s and with the piano teacher in the 1950s. The story jumps back and forth in time. The piano teacher has no knowledge of the woman from the 1940s

The book has drama and intrigue and it held my attention all the way through. It’s also good study of how the colonial British interacted with the Chinese elite.

All that being said, while I gave it a '4' I would be remiss not to note that this novel has a very low rating on GR - 3.4. I cursored through friends' reviews and saw a couple of 4s but many more were lower ratings. Yet, consider this quoted from the blurb on GR: "Her first novel. The Piano Teacher was published to critical acclaim from the New York Times, People, and O magazine, among others. It spent 19 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list."


The author is a Hong Kong born (1972) American writer. Her parents were Korean expatriates. This was her first novel of the five she has written. (But it is not the novel of the same name by Elfriede Jelinek that was made into a French movie in 2001.)

[Revised, pictures added 2/6/2020; revised 9/17/23]

Japanese occupation of Hong Kong from thoughtco.com
Internees at the Stanley Camp in Hong Kong from gwulo.com
The author from the New York Times nyt.com
Profile Image for Elaine.
485 reviews17 followers
January 8, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Karina.
851 reviews
September 5, 2019
4.5... I've never thought of a title for a book to be either a good name or a bad name but after reading this brilliant historical fiction book I have to say this is a dumb title for this particular book. Looking at the cover you think it's a white female that is a piano teacher probably having an affair and it is all about her BUT NO! I thought Claire was the most boring protagonist in the whole book.

The story alternates in Hong Kong between Will Truesdale (British) and Trudy Liang (Eurasian; Portuguese, Chinese mix) in the year 1941 before the start of the second world war. Then there is Claire's story with Will in the year 1952. Claire (British, married to Martin) ultimately, unknowingly, entangles herself with the rich through piano tutoring lessons with the Chen's daughter, Locket, and then in having an affair with their British driver Will.

The story slowly weaves in the beginning untangling itself in the middle. It is such a good WWII book with nothing to do with the Holocaust. The British have colonized Hong Kong trying to separate itself from China. There are many rich having to do with the government living at that time. Then the war hits. Hong Kong is invaded by the terrorist, fascist Japanese; living in the abandoned homes, taking shits in every room to celebrate, beheading anyone in their way, raping amah's and any woman caught on her own. The rich are now living in jails in their own feces, contaminated waters, little to eat with so many dark secrets. The British get the worst treatment by far, which in this period is understandable. The Americans get treated the best and have the most to eat, which makes one wonder whose side they were on originally, before it all went down.

The story is the best in 1941, Trudy and Will's story and the corruption of the war. There are many shady characters and so many twists I didn't see coming. War shows what a person is willing to do to get by and shows one's true character in a time of crisis. I would HIGHLY recommend this story to WWII or historical fiction readers esp those looking for Japanese based stories. I couldn't get to the end fast enough, now I can take a breath. SO GOOD!
Profile Image for Jennifer.
748 reviews88 followers
February 22, 2009
Lee alternates between two different time periods to tell the story of betrayal in war time Hong Kong. (Does anyone just write a linear story any more? Seems like every book I pick up these days uses this kind of device).

I really enjoyed the 1940's story line of Will and Trudy during the war - An Englishman and a Eurasian woman who are in the thick of the pre-war social scene and how their lives change when the Japanese invade Hong Kong. Will is interned as a prisoner of war and Trudy decides to collaborate to survive. Which of course goes awry...

The 1950's storyline is thinner and less compelling. Will is now a driver for a rich Chinese businessman (Trudy's cousin) and he takes up with a naive young Englishwoman who is fresh off the boat with her husband. Claire is the piano teacher of the title and unfortunately, she a fairly bland and uninteresting character who simply becomes an empty vessel for the story to flow through.

I enjoyed reading this book but the journey was more satisfying than the destination. Read this book for the sense of setting, the vivid image of pre-war Hong Kong, the social scene of ex-pats and rich locals vying for status but don't expect a plot that will pull you towards a resolution of importance.
Profile Image for Britney.
70 reviews21 followers
December 6, 2008
I've found that it's easy to find World War II literature that focuses on the Holocaust or on the American experience. It's harder to find books that explore the non-Western experience. The Piano Teacher explores how lives in Hong Kong in the 1950s was affected by the Japanese invasion of the British colony during the war.

Ultimately, the 1940s parts were more compelling. I wanted to know more about the relationship between Will and Trudy, Will's experience in an internment camp with other Westerners, and Trudy's attempts to make nice with the Japanese and provide for her own survival. Claire, the piano teacher of the title, was much less interesting, and despite her title billing never seemed like a true protagonist. A young wife new to Hong Kong, Claire finds herself unexpectedly entangled in Will's secrets after they begin their own affair.

I'd like to learn more about Hong Kong in this time period as a result of the 1940s sections of the book, but the 1950s chapters (the book switches between the two) were just not very interesting, and some character traits (for example Claire's thefts that open the book) are not carried convincingly throughout the book.
Profile Image for Bonnie.
1,376 reviews930 followers
November 15, 2015
Interested in more of my reviews? Visit my blog!

I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as I had hoped. The story was riveting; however, the characters were tremendously shallow, hard to understand, and extremely hard to like.

The Storyline
The story switches points of view between 1953 and 1942 when World War II has struck Hong Kong.

In 1953, Claire and Martin Pendleton, a recently married English couple, have moved to Hong Kong. Claire becomes a piano teacher teaching a young girl named Locket. Her parents, the Chens, employ Will Truesdale as their driver whom Claire eventually begins to have an affair with.

In 1942, Trudy Liang, a Eurasian, and Will Truesdale, an Englishman, are lovers. WWII strikes Hong Kong, Will ends up in a POW camp, and Trudy forms some treacherous alliances in order to keep him alive and as safe as possible.

The women in this story were borderline impossible to like. Claire’s ‘habit’ of stealing various items from the Chen household was the most strange and it was never really explained. There would just be occasional references to her dropping things into her purse… maybe it was explained, I may have simply missed it.

Everyone seemed to be enthralled with Trudy and I couldn’t understand why. She was charming in an overly obnoxious way and seemed to have quite a big head.

‘People have always expected me to be bad and thoughtless and shallow, and I do my best to accommodate their expectations. I sink to their expectations, one might say. I think it’s the ultimate suggestibility of most of us. We are social beings. We live in a social world with other people and so we wish to be as they see us, even if it is detrimental to ourselves.’

As the story progresses you get the whole story of what she ended up doing because of her love for Will and you can’t help but dislike her a little less, except not really. I had an emotional disconnect with this story and despite Trudy’s protestations of love for Will, I couldn’t see it. Essentially, I found Trudy’s actions to be more selfish than not, that all she did was to protect herself.

Bit of a disappointment from what I had anticipated.
Profile Image for Barb H.
697 reviews
September 20, 2023
I completed this novel feeling frustrated and deflated. Yee could have expanded what she had so capably initiated.The manner which she utilized to relate this tale is often muddled and confusing.

The story is set in Hong Kong and weaves back and forth between the 40's and 50's. She has clearly demonstrated the attitudes of class among the British, Americans and the native people. On one hand there are the people who are leading their frivolous existences similar to the "Gatsby era" and then there are those who humbly serve them. Character development was often flat and awkward. The time when the Japanese invaded and occupied Hong Kong was horrifying and detailed, but much was left unresolved. This chapter in history has been so much more aptly addressed in other literature. While trying to accomplish this, Yee has given the reader too little, attempting to tell too many stories and then omitting items which could have made her novel more satisfying.

The actions of her main characters were not clearly defined, nor always resolved satisfactorily. The conclusion of the book was abrupt, leaving the main character, the "piano teacher" suspended in a strange and uncharacteristic situation.
Profile Image for Christina.
78 reviews2 followers
January 20, 2010
the salespeople at Borders did me wrong! in their defense, i had but 10 minutes on my parking meter and made a hasty decision to buy this book.

and what a book! what a dumb book. boring story. i kept waiting for the story to get moving and it never did.

this is a slow story about a bunch of english ex-pats living in hong kong and going to parties, having affairs, stealing things. Part 2 gets only mildly interesting when the japanese invade.

boring boring boring characters. i didn't really care what ended happening to them.

i found claire to be as chiffony ( i just made that word up) as her dresses which were incessantly described

i found will to be exceptionally dull, just like his name. will (my apologies to any wills out there). maybe he was totally hot and good in bed?

and trudy... ah trudy. could i punch her in face? pleaaaase????? she was so terribly annoying i couldn't take it. "spoiled brat" would sum her up. every time her name came up i was irritated.

perhaps the author is anitcipating this becoming a movie? so many visual details of dresses and surroundings and sweat beads running down claire's back that had nothing to do with the story. so the scene was set? for what? a dumb story?

ug. i hate dumb books.

and what's with the name "locket"? it reminds me of michael jackson's kid, Blanket.
Profile Image for Patricia Williams.
600 reviews141 followers
July 27, 2018
Another book that I absolutely loved and could not quit reading. A WWII story but this one was told about Japanese/Chinese which is not what we usually read about. A very mixed up love story about people who were very confused about who they were but by the end of the book seemed to have found themselves and some sort of happiness and peace. If you like Drama, I definitely recommend.
29 reviews4 followers
March 23, 2009
bookshelves: read (edit)
status: Read in March, 2009, read count: 1
review: The cover of this book, The Piano Teacher, is its saving grace. It is a novel that attempts to provide some insights into conditions in Hong Kong prior to, during, and after World War II. It is a part of the world where the English, others, and the wealthy Chinese families form a tangled web of relationships.
On the one hand, we have Will Truesdale who finds himself strangely drawn to a Eurasian sprite of a girl, Trudy Liang, who flaunts her body and her wealth around like snowflake...more The cover of this book, The Piano Teacher, is its saving grace. It is a novel that attempts to provide some insights into conditions in Hong Kong prior to, during, and after World War II. It is a part of the world where the English, others, and the wealthy Chinese families form a tangled web of relationships.
On the one hand, we have Will Truesdale who finds himself strangely drawn to a Eurasian sprite of a girl, Trudy Liang, who flaunts her body and her wealth around like snowflakes in a blizzard. Together they wend their way in and around the social scene in that halycon harbor.
Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, and the containment of civilians who are not Chinese causes a rift in the mentioned characters relationship. Trudy, who is part Chinese and part POrtugese, becomes a girl toy of Otsubo, a high ranking gendarme in the Japanese army while simultaneously maintaining a liaison with Will.
You guessed it! Trudy is a pawn in the hands of the Japanese who think that Will can lead them to the whereabouts of the valuable Crown Collection. In an effort to obtain the information, she is allowed to "entertain" Will during weekend passes from Stanley, the containment facility, while at the same time continue to "please" Otsubo.
Where does the piano teacher fit into all of this? She doesn't until ten years later. The war is over, Will has been released, and Hong Kong has been liberated.
Will is now working as a chaffeur for the Chen's, a wealthy Chinese family who coincidentally have a ten year old daughter named, Locket. As fate would have it Claire Pendleton, the wife of a Water Works inspector, becomes the child'd piano teacher. Will and Claire meet, have a steamy affair which draws the teacher into a mysterious network that binds those characters who have a knowledge of the Crown Collection's whereabouts and those who wish to find it.
My poor evaluation of the novel is based on what can be summed up as a tale about arrogant, rich people who spend their time, money, and influence on gossip, tea parties, betraying one another and, of course, sex.
Perhaps Y. K. Lee is right, This is what the world is really about. I just wish that she could have focused her work more on what was in the Crown Collection that made it so valuable and less on Will's dalliances with Claire and Trudy.

Profile Image for Nadine in NY Jones.
2,813 reviews227 followers
November 2, 2016
"You must be different now,” she said. “You must rise to the occasion. And you must be strong. Now is the time for you to make a difference.”

This book was lush and beautiful and I loved it, but at the same time I found it very unsatisfying. It promised me so much! But it didn't keep all its promises. It's as if someone took a great story, removed a few key chapters, and then handed it to me. I was left with a lot of questions: what was that about? What did it mean? So I'm giving it four stars, and now I'm going to complain about all the things that annoyed me.

I enjoyed reading this, I enjoyed my time spent with the characters, but .... there were too many oblique and opaque comments, too many unfinished sentences spoken, too many plot threads left unraveled. Like this:
One day, Victor got in the car and directed Will to drive to the Peak. On the way up, he had seemed agitated, fidgeting with papers in the backseat.

“Mistakes were made,” he said suddenly, opaquely.

Will had not answered, which had made Victor more jumpy.

“Do you know what I’m talking about?” he had asked.


Neither do I!! I don't know what any of you are talking about!! Try to finish a goddamned sentence and every once in a while say what you mean!!

The beginning was delightful, four star territory; the middle dragged a bit because I became frustrated with not knowing what was inside Will's or Trudy's mind; then the tension rapidly increased, and increased, but instead of building to a satisfying conclusion, it just sort of ... pooooft! .... deflated like a bouncy house when you pull the plug. There was so much potential here! But I felt like this book didn't really know what it wanted to be.

The book is frustratingly uneven. Half of it is set in the 50s and focused on Claire; we are omniscient here and know Claire's thoughts and feeling. The other half is set in the 40s and focused on Will with Trudy, but we are outside viewers here, never knowing why Will says what he says.
He stared at her—this unworldly young woman he had brought over from England—and realized he had no idea who she was.

(Yes! I second that! I have no idea who Will is, or any of the characters, really!! And sometimes the things Will says are incredibly short sighted, obstinate, and completely unreasonable.) And then the third part jumped around so much in time that I had to keep checking the ToC to see where I'd been.

Mild spoilers ahead (feel free to read them, unless you truly want to be unspoiled for all aspects).

So many fascinating details were included, but they turned out to have no bearing on the plot. So I wondered: what was that all about? Did I miss the denouement? Had I glanced away at the key moment? (No of course I had not. I read every word.)

Usually infidelity really bothers me, but for some reason it doesn't in this book. Maybe it seemed inevitable, maybe the married couple doesn't seem to be in love anyway, I don't know.

Most of the time when I read a book I either don't care what the characters look like, or they are described so well that I picture them effortlessly. In this book, their physical appearance is often mentioned, but I still couldn't picture them. Finally I tried to come up w actors I can picture, but that was unsatisfying also. Will is described so many times, but I couldn't "see" him!!

All that said ... I will still definitely be reading Ms Lee's new book!! I loved reading this book, I looked forward to getting back to it each time I had to set it down. I recommend this to anyone interested in reading a book set in Hong Kong before, during, and after WWII.

This book fulfills the "a culture you're unfamiliar with" task in the 2016 Popsugar Reading Challenge.
Profile Image for Deb.
Author 2 books24 followers
October 8, 2014
Ambitious. Somewhat intriguing. Good but not perfect.

The Piano Teacher definitely turned out to be much different then I thought it would be. It's a WWII story (for some reason I'm drawn to them) with flash backs. The story takes place in present of the 1950's Hong Kong, a decade after the war. A British woman named Claire arrives with her husband Martin who has obtained a position at a water plant. Claire is trying to find her place among the other expatriates and her new surroundings. She doesn't feel that she quite fits in. One of her fellow expats finds her a position as a piano teacher to a young girl from an affluent Chinese family, the Chens. The Chens have a British chauffeur named Will Truesdale. The Chens have some secrets and Will Truesdale is somehow associated in this hidden past that leads back to a time before and heightened during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the war. Through flash backs we learn the story. What life was like before the war and during the war what people did to survive. We learn about the love of Wills life Trudy and why she's not present in Will's 1950's life yet Claire is.

So, let's just get to it: I found the good parts good and the others..blah. It took this book a long time to get really started. Slow start but once it did pick up I began to like it. I liked hearing about what it was like for the expatriate socialites in Hong Kong before the war. I could just picture the carefree fun they had with all the nationality of a certain economic status melding together. Trudy was one wild character and Will seemed to languidly glide along with her going with the flow. Everything was a gas and great shebang of a good time until the war was actually at their doorstep and then sh** got real. This is location experiencing the effects of WWII that I'd never heard about. I understand every part of the world at that time experienced something. Some form of lunacy was everywhere and it was interesting to hear what it meant to this part of the world. I didn't know the Japanese went in and took Hong Kong before the Allies arrived. I didn't know that all the residents of enemy nations were sent to Internment camps in jail buildings. It was good to have a bit of a history lesson. I liked that about this book. What I didn't care for much was the flashing back and forth with no rhyme or reason. I didn't know why when I thought things were going along fine and I was interested in what I was reading, the next page was time traveling again. It got so back and forth toward the end it started to frustrate me a bit and make me feel like, "alright already just tell me!" Also, these secrets...to me weren't really secrets. Or worth the secrecy. It seems as if the author wanted the reader to feel a sense of this "mystery" but I just was not mystified. And once the supposed hidden things were brought to light I thought I missed it. I felt like "Wait.. What?" I was also miffed by the fact that there were too major relationships in this book but not a stitch of romance or even emotional intimacy. Anything close to a connection was glazed over. What strange representations of love. To sum up, I liked it but it was missing a few components that could have made it really good. It was ok, with potential but instead it just laid back. I thought it was taking off but then I'd turn the page "time to do the time warp again."

I give this book a 3 stars. I do recommend this to Historical fiction readers.
Profile Image for Vonia.
611 reviews97 followers
February 12, 2020
So this book seriously sucked. The first few pages held some interest, but after that it didn't redeem itself until the last handful of chapters. I suppose I have no one to blame but myself and my stubbornness to finish every book that I endeavor to read. But I can assure you that I will remember little one week from now.

Page-turning? "[A book] you can't put down"? Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. This should teach me to consider my other options very conscientiously the next time I have a book rated below a 3.5 from my fellow readers in my hands.

The synopsis pretty much says it all. The narrative alternated between 1943 and 1953, telling the stories of Will Truesdale and his affair with Trudy Liang, which ended with the calamity brought on by World War II; and that of Claire Pendleton, who ends up in her own affair with Will. Claire becomes "The Piano Teacher" to Locket, the meek daughter to the Chens, whom Will is employed by. It is not long before sheltered and ordinary Claire becomes entagled in the stories of these other characters, changing her into an entirely different woman then she was before. She does not change on her own volition. Rather, it is because she finds herself trapped in a love triangle and between powerful forces and families she never expected to.

I never really felt connected to any of the characters. Even Claire remained a two dimensional woman that I felt I knew very little about. All of the other main characters were actually unmemorable and not likeable. The story was scattered and the writing was not very proficient in regards to immersing the reader.

The worst part of all this? By the end, nothing has changed for the long term. The last sentence, specifically and plainly tells of Claire's thrill at the thought of being able to walk outside right now and blend in, to become a nobody, an everybody.

What a waste of what had the potential, in another author's fingers, to be a prolific story.

**** Spoilers ****

Claire finds out about Trudy, who Will had never fallen out of love with. He has built his entire life around the guilt he carries around from that time. As a prisoner in the internment camps, he would not agree to help Trudy out, who was doing poorly on the outside. She began to work for the enemy, at which point he blocked her out. That he did this out of cowardice; that it was because he saw then that he would do anything for her and it scared him- this only came later, when she was already dead. Apparently, The Crown Jewels were some national treasures that only three individuals knew the location for: Edwina, Will, and Victor Chen. Anyways, blah blah blah, political intrigue, scandal, double crossing, blah blah blah, Trudy's baby is actually Locket. Blah blah blah, propriety in upper class Hong Kong, social elite parties, blah blah blah. Said national treasures eventually returned to China. Will remains nonchalant. Epilogue shows Claire living alone, still in Hong Kong, but elated to no longer be the focus of anyone's attention, and to be able to blend into the rest of society and be a nobody again.
Profile Image for Maya Panika.
Author 1 book70 followers
December 15, 2008
Don't judge a book by its cover!

On the surface, this is a romance novel about a man’s One Great Love that can’t withstand the rigours of the war, and a less than great affair with a married piano teacher. Underneath that surface lies a cleverly constructed mystery about a beautiful socialite who disappears during the war and the people responsible, directly and indirectly, for her death.

Some of the characters grow rich, stay safe, become successful, others are interned, tortured and die – and it's rarely the people you expect, there’s a surprise in almost every chapter. No one is who or what they seemed to be at the start. A great many dirty secrets are revealed, many lives ruined, some vindicated and some - you never do find out what happened. Rich and poor, they just disappear. The brutality of the Japanese occupation is not glossed over. This is not a story for the squeamish.

The book’s cover – distinctly Mills and Boon – didn’t fill me with much in the way of anticipation, I was expecting a weak and slushy romance in an exotic setting. I was wrong. The setting and the characters are palpable, real and perfectly drawn; the plot compelling and intriguing. Highly recommended
Profile Image for Kaye.
541 reviews
December 15, 2008
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 becomes familiar with her new home. With her 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*****

Profile Image for Robert Blumenthal.
840 reviews74 followers
March 30, 2016
There are certain writers who just grab me, and Janice Lee is definitely one of them. She has a remarkable ability to tell a story, especially in her developing of characters and evoking a setting. Her home turf is Hong Kong (both of her novels take place there), but it is how she places her characters in the setting that speaks to me. She has shown a wonderful ability to develop characters who are unrelated at the start and weave a narrative that intertwines them in ways that are both overt and subtle and coincidental.

Here she deals with Hong Kong during World War II, and then 7 years after the war. There is Trudy, a beautiful, glamorous and spoiled biracial woman in the early 1940s, and then there is Claire, a British expatriate, in postwar Hong Kong hired to teach a young Chinese girl piano. And then there is Will, who connects them both. The tale is mostly about the horrors of the war years and what people did to survive. Some of the horrors were almost a bit much for me, making for very unpleasant reading. However, the intricate plot that arises from this theme is quite intriguing and compels the reader forward. And the characters all have their faults, which, I believe, makes for much more interesting characterization. I am anxiously awaiting her next book.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
86 reviews41 followers
May 16, 2014
The beginning was a little hard to get into. I was about to give up so read some of the reviews on here found I wasn't alone. I pushed through and I'm so glad I did!! This was a beautifully written, it brought Hong Kong and the war alive. There were very interesting characters as well. Around page 100 it got so good I devoured the rest!
Profile Image for Sharon Huether.
1,502 reviews10 followers
November 12, 2017
After WWII. Claire Pendelton left England with her new husband as he was employed by the State Water Dept.
Claire was mingling with some of the locals. Melody Chen wanted her daughter to learn the piano, so she hired Clair to be her teacher.
Claire was starting to see the dangers of Hong Kong, so she found a small place to call her own and was trying to find herself.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
61 reviews3 followers
July 12, 2012
Disappointment. Although that's what this book sets out to portray, it accomplishes it in a different way that the author intended.
Set in the historically fascinating world of British Hong Kong in the 1940s and 50s, The Piano Teacher begins as a rather artsy novel that had a lot of potential. However, it fell flat about three or four chapters in, and the rest was dull and underachieving. Where Janice K. Lee has promise as a novelist, this book needed more personal editing and plot consolidation before she slapped a title and cover on it.
The novel opens on Claire Pendleton, an English lady living in Hong Kong with her somewhat platonic husband, Martin. She is employed as the eponymous piano teacher to a local family, the Chens. As the novel moves on, Claire's character is illustrated (a bit) as the girl interrupted, forced to marry someone she does not love for convenience. Her life changes when she encounters Will Truesdale, the Chen family's English driver who has a mysterious past and a strange, puzzling facade that fascinates Claire. Predictably, she is pulled into a very odd love affair, which can only end in disaster.
The parallel story of Hong Kong in the 1940s is told from Will's perspective as he remembers his relationship with the fantastic socialite Trudy Liang, a young Eurasian woman. These memories, interspersed with the story of Claire and Will, follows the tragedy of the city in the grip of the Japanese throughout World War II, the incarceration of all "enemy nationalities," and above all the dangerous facades of people. The end is confusing, though, which is upsetting for such a good idea.
Lee opens the book with the fiery passion of a novelist, creating her world and characters with clear pictures in mind. The exposition of the world of Hong Kong, amahs, and British debutantes is an intriguing one- an Oriental reproduction of the 19th century world that vanished in Europe. Claire begins as a terribly interesting character: soon after she begins teaching the daughter, she begins to steal things from Mrs. Chen, almost in a kleptomaniac way. The first part of the book is tense, waiting for Claire's thefts to be exposed, but from there it falls off into dull predictability.
Though all the characters have that subtle, human potential of being great literature, Lee falls into the trap of doing what is expected and cliche with them. The only one that delivers any sort of memorable plot point is Trudy Liang, whose end is annoyingly vague and psychologically complex. She is needy and independent all at once, leaving guilt and regret in the readers once she's gone.
Too bad she's stuck in a boring book. Will, her companion in the 1940s tale, is only interesting on the surface; once Lee begins trying to explore who he is, he becomes an annoyingly waffling person with only a dark and mysterious facade. Claire's puzzling at his vague statements and behavior makes her out to be rather unintelligent, because the things that he does are not as complicated as Lee makes them out to be.
I personally had no idea what to do with the character of Claire. It's almost as if she doesn't really have a place in the novel. It would almost have been better to eliminate the 1950s story entirely; by the end of the book, I didn't care about what happened to her at all, which seemed to be the goal of the epilogue. The story of Will and Trudy was far more interesting than Claire's moaning about Will's complex behavior and the thick social atmosphere in Hong Kong. (I nearly skimmed one of her chapters in order to get to the next 1940s bit.) If Lee had thought about the whole thing a little longer, The Piano Teacher might have come out as a much better novel with a more centered storyline.
One thing that redeems the novel a bit is the style. At first, it seems rather dull and ordinary, but as it progresses, more interesting structures come out. The thing that stood out most is the tenses of the telling: Claire's bits are told in past tense, but Will's are told in present tense, as if recalled in present tense in a memory. As we reach the end of the novel, Will's chapters are more confusing and scattered, as if repressed memories are coming out, which really lends to the effect.
It doesn't matter if there's nothing new under the sun- if you do an old idea well, then it's a joy to read. But The Piano Teacher plods out a tired story with underdeveloped editing and work, wasting its incredible potential on a very mediocre novel. It's not very long, 326 double-spaced, small pages, so it's a quick read if you have some time to kill.
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,065 reviews1,903 followers
March 29, 2016
Wow. When I first started reading this book, I didn't think it was so great. Well-written, certainly, but nothing to write home about. I thought Lee was writing underdeveloped women characters, and also, she wrote her women characters as if she didn't really like women. The, after about a quarter of the book, it turns into a war novel. I really dislike novels about war. So I was not enjoying it very much. HOWEVER, about tho-thirds through the book, it starts getting really good, and everything just coalesces beautifully. Things start coming together, and before you know it, the characters are real and three-dimensional and vibrant. I really liked the book after that. Lee sure knows how to bring up heavy subjects very subtly, and how to weave a character together. I just wish it hadn't taken 66% of the novel to get to that point. Nearing the end, I could FINALLY understand why this book received such acclaim and was a New York Times Bestseller.
Profile Image for Paul Cornelius.
786 reviews21 followers
March 27, 2022
Okay, yes, read this book. It's worth your time. Now, for my notes, which may appear harsh, but they're not intended as a review. They're just notes for some research I'm doing into the topic of contemporary views of expatriates--

Anachronisms. A couple of them. 1) Malaysia did not come into existence until 1963, ten years after the last year in this novel. Before then, it was Malaya in various forms. 2) Easy peasy" is not only an ear grating infantilizing of English but it is a term that did not exist in 1941, when it was used in this novel, nor in 1952, another year of this novel, or in 1961. It came into currency in 1962, apparently.

When introducing terms for local color, it is not necessary to define them parenthetically. Actually, I suspect the editor to be responsible for this. But it made the novel look inept at the beginning. "Amah" is used so often that its meaning becomes clear. No need to define it. "Chop" is only used once. So really no need to define it at all. No real reason to use it. It's just misplaced local atmosphere. If anyone is dying to know, they can look it up. That is how the likes of Conrad and Maugham handled these situations. (And I can never imagine Conrad having someone like Lord Jim ever utter, "easy peasy." Nor Maugham. Heck, I can't even imagine James Clavell doing that. It really bothers me.)

The story is okay. The 1941-42 story is carried off much better than the 1952-53 story, which is always too trite and teeters on the edge of becoming a romance novel at times. Distance helps with the characterizations in the World War II part about Hong Kong. But the 1950s on the island seem destined for cliche at one moment and then complete unbelievability at the next. Did we really read all these pages so Claire could tell us it is all about "finding herself?" Claire. Will. Fairly uninteresting protagonists. Trudy holds your attention. But she gets assigned to the forgotten heap about two thirds of the way through.

Some good color about Hong Kong. The Parisian Grill is evocative. Dropping the Peninsula doesn't do much, however. I would have been impressed had Lee mentioned Tiger Balm Garden. Lee does leave us with a fairly good road map of HK in the Forties. But HK in the 50s seems sort of cut and dried. Instead of just reading about HK in the 1950s, Lee should have watched some movies. I can think of four or five that would have helped.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
79 reviews
July 8, 2010
I liked the book fine. The story was good, but I found that I was annoyed by the author's style, which I found disorienting and confusing. With fiction, I usually start a book and don't put the book down, but with this book, I read the first 20 or 30 pages and found the disjointed writing really did not pull me in to the story. I put the book down and didn't come back for over a month --- and didn't really have a burning desire to come back during that time.

I have recently read Water for Elephants, which also jumped back and forth from past to "present" day. But with Water for Elephants, this technique was used expertly -- with smooth transitions back and forth that enhanced the story.

Here, I felt this technique was contrived at times. And even within chapters, the writing jumped from topic to topic, as if the author kept thinking of a clever description or factoid she wanted to throw in but couldn't figure out how to really weave it in. She got better at it later in the book, but overall, her style was trying too hard to be "literary" -- if you know what I mean.

And ultimately, I felt the climax of the book was deliberately and unnecessarily coy and oblique. Too many loose ends, too many allusions to a resolution without really telling us what happened, too much beating around the bush. I don't necessarily need a happy fairytale ending, but in the key moment when the mystery unravels, don't leave us trying to figure out what the heck the book is saying.
Profile Image for Sharmeela.
123 reviews
June 27, 2012
This book was just okay. The plot had such potential, but Lee chose to squander it somewhat. I'll admit I enjoyed the past/present flow of the story, but the actual story was more boring than anything. I found myself waiting and waiting for Lee to get to the point, to no avail. I assumed (naively) that since I'm waiting and waiting for this giant secret to emerge, that it would have to be something worthwhile. But alas, I was wrong! It was the most obvious secret ever! I was thoroughly disappointed.
I will say that Lee turned out to be a good writer and I enjoyed the prose more than anything else. However, along with the boring plot, I found the characters to be extremely unrealistic and unlikeable. I know that I would never become friends, or even acquaintances with these people because they all seemed self-righteous and horrible. Although they come from privilege, I'm sure most in the upper class would be highly offended at this vulgar portrayal. They were completely unrelatable in every way.
Overall, an easy yawn, lots of potential, yet very unremarkable.
Profile Image for Laura.
6,911 reviews565 followers
August 20, 2011
I really liked this book. The plot is a "love" story between Will Truesdale, an Englishman and Trudy Liang an Eurasian socialite during World War II in Hong Kong. What really happened to Trudy we will learn ten years later through Claire Pendleton's story, a piano teacher when she have a love affair with Will. The end was quite surprising but I'll not add any comment here in order to avoid spoilers.
Profile Image for Dajana.
111 reviews7 followers
April 12, 2023
Uh, previše vremena mi je trebalo da pročitam ovu knjigu. Krenulo je dobro. Hong Kong tijekom i nakon Drugog svjetskog rata, nekoliko zanimljivih likova (izuzetak je glavna junakinja Claire do koje mi ni najmanje nije stalo), neloš stil pisanja… i onda se počelo vrtjeti u krug. Nije pomoglo ni to što čitatelj zna dio onoga što Claire ne zna pa njezino traganje za istinom može biti itekako naporno. Pred kraj je postalo malo uzbudljivije, no nije uspjelo izvući osrednji roman.
Profile Image for Elena Druță.
Author 7 books408 followers
March 14, 2019
Mi-a plăcut decorul, personajele și modul în care se dezvoltă relația dintre Claire și Will. Recenzia mea o găsiți pe canal.
Profile Image for Debbie.
556 reviews94 followers
September 5, 2017
I liked this book very much. The characters were very interesting and I especially loved the setting of Hong Kong. I did not care for the character of Claire whatsoever, though I did try very hard to find some redeeming qualities. I liked the way it was written, not a lot of descriptive information, and somewhat sparing prose.
Profile Image for Judy.
1,710 reviews295 followers
October 14, 2010

Marketing has been with us for many years as the engine which drives commerce, but these days it is the slickest it's ever been. In the niche of book covers, I consider myself at least careful not to buy a book for its cover, but this one pulled me in like the proverbial sucker: the colors, the image of the woman and the title all worked their magic on me. Fortunately I was not too badly suckered, especially because I recommended The Piano Teacher to one of my reading groups.

Claire Pendleton is an unformed, inexperienced provincial English young woman who married a man she barely knew, mainly to escape her boring life and overbearing mother. She finds herself in post WWII Hong Kong and before long she is in way over her head. Between the social life, the impenetrable lover who excites her far more than her husband and intrigues lingering from the war, she is forced to develop a personality. Both her innocence and an intrepid streak she never knew she had, bring her through.

The story is historical and something of a thriller. The actual main characters are Claire's lover, Will Truesdale and his now deceased lover from the war, a Eurasian socialite named Trudy Liang. From Graham Greene to James Clavell, novels set in Hong Kong always deal in a certain dark, sensuous and slightly criminal set of circumstances and The Piano Teacher is no exception.

Serious flaws such as an abrupt change in style shortly before the end and inconsistencies in Claire's character still did not ruin the fascination and power of the story. I look forward to more from a promising first novelist.
Profile Image for Elizabeth (Alaska).
1,320 reviews438 followers
August 7, 2021
The GR description had me believing this was a WWII novel. I admit it would have helped had I read the entire description. Claire Pendleton, the eponymous piano teacher, doesn't arrive in Hong Kong until 1952. I wasn't expecting alternating timelines, Part I is a chapter in the 1940s, then a chapter in the 1950s, back and forth. Part II is all the 1940s while Part III is all the 1950s, except when it gets a little muddied.

This was easily read and it never occurred to me to abandon it. I was rewarded for having stuck with it because the last 50 pages redeem the mundaneness of first 275. No, those 275 pages aren't a slog, just that they weren't much better than 'meh'. That's really too darned long for the foundation and build up. Reading about the conditions in Hong Kong during the Japanese Occupation were hard reading and maybe more graphic than I needed.

I think this should have been titled "Will Truesdale". Though there are two women - Trudy Liang and Claire Pendleton - this is more his story than either of theirs. None of the characterizations were well done. Alternating the timelines weakened the effect of the conditions and Hong Kong society of 1950s as all of the characters, other than Claire Pendleton, had lived through the Occupation. I have nothing to complain about the writing. It is better than much that is churned out in the 21st Century when so much has been dumbed down. (Maybe authors think we're too tired at the end of the day to enjoy rich prose.) 3-stars.
Profile Image for Sidonia.
304 reviews49 followers
December 10, 2019
Am cartea asta de cep putin 5 ani. Nu stiu cum am ales-o atunci, caci in mod sigur nu stiam nimic despre ea. Tocmai de aceea nu i-a venit randul, pana de curand cand mi-am propus sa citesc toate cartile vechi inainte sa imi cumpar altele noi aparute. Si bine am facut, pentru ca mi-a placut mult cartea aceasta. E genul de lectura care nu te da pe spate, nu exclami wow, dar totusi nu te poti dezlipi de ea. Profesoara de pian este Claire, o englezoaica abia sosita in Hong Kong alaturi de sotul ei. Ai zice, la o prima lectura, ca aceasta poveste este despre ea, din titul intelegi ca ea este in centrul relatarilor, insa mie mi s-a parut ca aceasta carte este despre Trudy. Despre Trudy si despre Will, despre ei doi separat si despre ei doi impreuna. M-a impresionat Trudy, insa parca am detestat felul ei de a fi, usuratic, schimbator, ca si cum niciodata nu am stiut ce vrea ea cu adevarat. De aia spun ca este o poveste ciudata si totodata interesanta. Dar ce mi-a placut cel mai mult, este relatarea despre invazia japoneza in timpul celui de-al doilea razboi mondial. Sunt de-a dreptul remarcabile faptele descrise, oribile, un subiect despre care stiam aproape nimic. E de citit.
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