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The Piano Teacher
by Janice Y. K. Lee


When newlywed Claire Pendleton arrives in 1950s Hong Kong, she finds the ‘foreign’ ways of the Chinese completely baffling. A provincial Englishwoman, nothing in her previous life has prepared her for this new world save a talent for playing the piano – a skill that a wealthy Chinese couple, the Chens, would very much like to pass on to their daughter. Claire becomes the girl’s piano teacher. When a small trinket happens to fall into her purse, Claire keeps it – and soon she’s regularly stealing little things from the Chens as a sort of petty revenge against Hong Kong. She further seeks to cure her dissatisfaction with life through an affair with the Chen’s driver, an Englishman named Will. Will once had a beautiful, vivacious lover named Trudy, but their love could not survive the tests of World War II. Trudy still haunts Will, and her constant presence in his mind casts a shadow over any happiness he hopes to find in this life.

The Piano Teacher is a total snore. Split between the two narratives – Will and Trudy in the 1940s and Will and Claire in the 1950s – the book never really brings either time period to life. The characters are pretty unlikable, although I suppose each one has his or her own reasons for rubbing the reader the wrong way. Claire is subtly racist against the Chinese, and seems resentful of any yellow-skinned person who lives better than she does. Trudy is a half-Chinese, half-white woman who never fits in anywhere, so she compensates by being catty and shallow. Will’s a jerk who never seemed to engage with the people around him. I didn’t care about any of these people, so when tragedy swept through their lives it didn’t affect me. And bad things happen in this book! During World War II, Hong Kong was occupied by Japan and many of the Europeans and Americans were rounded up and put into camps, where there is suffering and hunger and broken families. It’s utterly miserable, but without investment in the characters it just felt like a superficial overview of events.

Skip it.

1.5 out of 5 stars


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