Book Review: The Piano Teacher By Janice Y.K. Lee

I don’t know why, but I have always had a strong penchant for books published by Penguin. It stems from a childhood filled with Penguin Classics – at least that’s what I think.  Or maybe it’s just that I find  the tiny orange logo with the white penguin inside it, irresistible – a bit mad, I know. The little jolt of excitement I feel when I see a Penguin book is also based on the assumption that the book is stellar. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I have a tendency to continue my affinity for the publisher by choosing other imprints of Penguin such as Puffin and Viking etc. So, why am I going on about Penguin? although, I don’t limit myself to Penguin – that would mean I miss out on some really good books – well, um, lately, some of the books by Penguin have been less than enthralling. The story lines are weak and waver between forced endings and boring beginnings. That said, however, when I saw ‘The Piano Teacher’ something about the cover beckoned a read. It really was a lovely, lovely book and I was spellbound by the middle. It began a little slow – I will tell you why in a bit, but, its crescendo and subsequent end, left me thinking about it for days to come.

I am currently reading quite a few books with a focus on WWII. I was very keen to find a different perspective and the book I am about to review, certainly delivers. We read so many accounts of the Holocaust and yet forget that the Far East had their own battles with Japanese occupation. While we are aware of the terror they caused during the occupation – many of them in British colonies, we rarely hear accounts of the horrendous torture suffered by the POWs.  Janice Lee weaves her tale of war, its effects and the beauty that is Hong Kong, in soft layers of prose, without missing a beat.  You weep and celebrate all at the same time for love that is lost and gained and lost again.

When I first met Clare Pendleton, she seemed average, bare, a sort of lack luster character, with no spunk, just someone’s young wife, who had moved from  London with her husband, to Hong Kong. Enthralled by her surroundings, fascinated by the Far East Clare embraces the city as much as she can. By the time she seeks and begins work as a piano teacher for the Chen family – who are wealthy and pretentious with their British education,  trying hard to embrace Eastern culture, damning their own for becoming more British and less Chinese, using their cunning and self-serving ways to aid the Japanese – we are in the midst of a colorful story that also shows us an entirely different side to the usually meek and polite Clare. When she meets their silent and enigmatic chauffeur, her layers materialize as a long and gentle metamorphosis begins.

Ten years before Clare is introduced to Hong Kong, we are presented with a glorious feast of characters who belong to a wealthy group of upper-class expatriates, living it up with fashionable dinner parties, dressed in gorgeous color popping silks, flirting with young men, singing and dancing without a care in the world. It is at one of these events that I came face to face with the stunning Trudy, a slender vision of extreme beauty, who, due to her heritage – Portuguese and Asian- is accepted into the ex- pat circles as she flits about making friends, enjoying her status as a popular socialite.  As she makes plans, concerned with the next event, the next dress, Will Truesdale walks into a gathering. Trudy, who has somewhat of a reputation with men ( at least on the surface) immediately flits to his side, charming him, claiming him, first as a friend, then as a lover, before any other young woman can even think about it. Trudy knows what she wants, she gets what she wants and she makes no excuses about it. She is not passionate, there is something slightly cold about her and you get the feeling she is withholding a lot. She seems unable to express herself and avoids speaking about anything serious. Will, however, cannot get enough of her, he is kind, he accepts her as she is and their relationship which seems sort of one-dimensional, continues in this false arena of glamour and celebration, even as the Japanese begin to take over most of Hong Kong.

At this point, the book has gone on quite a bit about the superficial lives of these characters and their parties.  It is very slow in its descriptions and slow to ignite the proverbial fire in the story. It is almost as if no one realizes the imminent dangers from ignoring Japanese warnings – their secret and then, not so secret murders of prominent people, bodies found on the street and food that is being rationed – which eventually( I thought it was about time) begins to terrify the community. Here, I found myself treating Trudy as the true protagonist of the story rather than Clare, whom the book is titled after. When domestics in well to do homes are given leave, many of the expats are divided into groups and thrown into camps with barely any of their wealth in tact. The Japanese, cruelly divide up their homes and belongings among themselves, torturing anyone who gets between their law and justice. In the eyes of the Japanese, there is no right and wrong, they not only own all property, they  become the government. As our journey takes us into the POW camps and Will is thrown into the British lot, reluctantly becoming their liaison with the outside world, Trudy manages to escape camp by denouncing her Portuguese heritage, at the same time, a terrifying choice is made while on the outside, enabling her belief that she alone can help Will get out of the tightly wound, closely watched, camp.

As the two stories are juxtaposed, Clare is unwittingly and somewhat naïvely thrown into Will’s world. His demons and his past with Trudy overwhelm her character, as she is unable to find what she seeks, in terms of a fulfilling life. I was disappointed in her lack of strength and direction. My first impression about her seemed correct. I definitely changed my mind  as I began to understand her better, I left impressed by the change in her and admired her courage, for although her situation rendered her future hopeless, she shone with the bright spark of what is expected of a “true” protagonist.


  1. MM, I actually own this book and got it when it first came out. It is one of many sitting here waiting to be read. So thanks for the review. It sounds promising but I’m now a little put off by how long you indicate it takes to get going. I don’t have the patience for that. Sigh.


    1. I can see why Monica, I was asking myself when the frivolity would end but you know, you sort of progress to the middle very quickly once that bit is over. I enjoyed it very much. I just loved the cover so much, I had to read it.


  2. gretchen says:

    Awesome review! I have tried to read this book twice and have not been able to get in to it. Maybe I will give it one more try 🙂


    1. Oooh I hope you do. It was slow but the middle is so good and the end was a bit anticlimactic for me, but it was fitting nevertheless.


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