The Piano Teacher
Janice Y. K. Lee
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Demure and unsophisticated, Claire Pendleton is the quintessential English rose when she first arrives in Hong Kong. The year is 1952 and, as the wife of an English engineer overseeing the construction of a new reservoir, Claire seems destined to lead an insulated life, socializing with the other expatriate wives. But when she takes a position giving piano lessons to Locket Chen, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful local family, she enters a world of deceit, passion, and dark secrets that will deeply shock Hong Kong society and change Claire forever.
At first glance, the British colony seems to have recovered from the ravages of the Japanese occupation a decade earlier. Yet memories and reminders of those brutal times are everywhere. The British themselves are divided into recent arrivals, like Claire, and those who survived the war, like Will Truesdale, the Chens’ English chauffeur. Will is handsome and darkly charismatic—everything Claire’s husband, the stolid and reliable Martin, is not. After meeting Will at a cocktail party, Claire begins to see him everywhere. In Will’s company, she finally feels alive but she is infuriated by his aloofness. He seems to understand her better than anyone else, but he reveals little of his own past or emotions. His gaunt figure and pronounced limp are grim souvenirs from the Japanese invaders and the time he was imprisoned in Stanley, the squalid prison camp where most British subjects—including women and children—spent the war abused, humiliated, and virtually starved. What little Claire learns is in fragments and often from gossip rather than Will himself.
Unexpectedly, Claire receives hints about Will’s former lover from two unlikely sources—Locket’s father, Victor, and Edwina Storch, a matriarch of the expatriate community. Trudy Liang, it seems, was everything Claire is not—a worldly-wise Eurasian heiress celebrated for her dazzling beauty and willful personality who disappeared mysteriously at the end of the war. Claire spies a photograph capturing a night of revelry shared by Will, Trudy, her employers, and an unknown Chinese man. How, she wonders, did Will come to be the Chens’ employee after having been so intimate with them socially?
As her affair with Will unfolds, Claire realizes that Trudy’s memory is a greater rival for his affections than any flesh-and-blood woman. But the past holds others in its thrall as well and—as the coronation of Britain’s young Princess Elizabeth nears—murmurs about the Crown Collection, which had gone missing during the war, grow into angry accusations of collaboration with the Japanese occupiers. Suddenly, Claire finds herself an unwitting pawn in a revenge plot when her affair with Will is manipulated to expose a trove of devastating secrets.
The Piano Teacher is a spellbinding tale of human frailty and passions reminiscent of The English Patient and Empire of the Sun. In alternating narratives, debut novelist Janice Y. K. Lee, brilliantly evokes Trudy, Will, and Claire’s tragic love triangle against the relative calm of 1950s Hong Kong and the glittering pre-war era’s decline into chaos and ruin.
Janice Y. K. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong and graduated from Harvard College. A former features editor at Elle and Mirabella magazines, she currently lives in Hong Kong with her husband and children.
Q. What is the inspiration for The Piano Teacher? Are Trudy’s experiences—or those of the other characters—based on those of people you’ve known personally or on historical characters?
The Piano Teacher is based in a time and a place that are real, with historical events that did happen, but what happens to my characters—their particular story—is imagined. Of course, people were interned, like Will was, and a few were outside, like Trudy was, but I did not come across anyone who had a similar story. I didn’t interview people about their experiences because I didn’t want other people’s facts to interfere with my fiction. I was very careful about that. I did read books by survivors and so I found out things that happened in the camps—daily life, schedules, activities.
With this book I really started with the characters, developed them until I knew them well. And they started to interact with each other. And that’s really where the story came from. The characters led me. In a time of war, there is a wide range of experiences in a short, intense time, so as a novelist it’s very freeing in that way to have the liberty to be able to imagine that anything might happen to your characters.
Q. Is there a real Crown Collection? If so, what is it and where is it now?
The Crown Collection is something that I made up. I was looking for something with great stakes, something that would make men lie and betray and kill, and this came to me, and it seemed so natural and right, and it felt authentic. These kinds of fictional details are a gift—you know when they come because they strike the right note.
Q. The novel is beautifully written, yet it also has a cinematic feel. What or who were your influences?
That was one of the most surprising things to me—that the writing was cinematic. I suppose I’ve been influenced by this visual age more than I knew. I actually haven’t had time to watch a lot of movies in the past six years, so I think it must be a repository of images from a long time ago. I have no idea who my influences are, but my favorite writers are, to name a few: Lorrie Moore, Mona Simpson, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides, Shirley Hazzard. These are all writers who, if their newest book comes out, I will rush out to get it.
Q. Ned Young and Edwina Storch are relatively minor but wonderfully rendered characters. Aside from the novel’s primary players, who is your favorite character and why?
I like Wan Kee Liang; he seemed very real to me. Angeline Biddle is also a character who seemed very true. All of these characters really came to be like real people to me, so much so that I knew how they would react in any given situation. I knew immediately that Trudy’s father would never want her to know that he needed her, because that is often how parents are, and that he was not the stereotypical business tycoon, all flamboyance and bravado. Of course, he would be quiet and shy, and outshined by his daughter. Or that Angeline was such a strict person that she would give up her friendship with Trudy because she didn’t approve of Trudy’s behavior. It was partly self-preservation but largely principles. Their motives and actions are very clear to me.
Q. It’s often said that the setting of a novel can be so vivid as to be like a character itself. That’s certainly true of Hong Kong in your novel. How did you research what it was like in the 1940s and 1950s?
I am a voracious reader and I came across some books that had been written in those times. I was so interested in the details of the time, and the details that interested me were not the minutiae of the war but all the stuff around it—what types of parties people were having, who they invited, what they wore, what they ate and drank. It’s hard to get that sort of detail from history books, so I got them from memoirs, old newspapers, and movies too. I wanted to know how long the trip was from London to Hong Kong, and how many stops and where the stops were, and what they ate on the boat. These are the details that, for me, make a novel come alive. Would an English person invite a Chinese person to a coronation party in the 1950s? How would they talk? Is it a possible that a Chinese person could be more English than the English person? Exploring all of this was great fun.
Q. You were born and raised in Hong Kong and then attended college at Harvard. What struck you as the most jarring differences between life in Hong Kong and the United States?
I think the difference was tempered by the fact that I attended the American school in Hong Kong and so I was already pretty American in culture when I went to the U.S. Still, it was an adjustment. I had never seen a northeastern winter and was amazed by the first few blizzards I experienced and how very cold it could get. I was also struck by how friendly Americans were, how they exchanged pleasantries for even the smallest of transactions, like buying a pack of gum. There’s much more distance in Hong Kong. People don’t say, “How’s it going?” and “Have a great day!” like they do in the U.S. It’s a much more formal society. Of course, now I’m very American and often startle people here by accosting them with some overly energetic greeting or too-personal question.
Q. How has Hong Kong changed since it reverted to the Chinese in 1997?
I left Hong Kong in 1987 and did not move back until 2005, so I was not here for the time immediately before and after the handover. When I was a girl, there was definitely a feeling that Hong Kong was a colony, that Mother England was overseeing everything and that we were her charges. When I moved back, much of the association with England had been erased. “Royal” had been stripped from the name of many services, clubs, and associations. There was much more emphasis on being part of China, being Chinese. However, I will say that the day-to-day part of living for me has not been affected that much. Hong Kong is a large, cosmopolitan city and very international in feel and has been that way for a long time.
Q. Is the book being published in Hong Kong and/or Japan? How do you expect it will be received there?
It has not been picked up in Hong Kong or Japan yet, although it has sold and is being translated in languages as far afield as Hebrew, Catalan, and Romanian. It was explained to me that often people in the countries/cultures that are being written about have less interest in the subject than do people in other places. In a way, it is old news to them. Interestingly though, it has been sold in Mainland China. The difference is simplified characters versus complex characters in the Chinese written language. Still, I have hope that Hong Kong and Japan will pick it up, as it is a novel first, and I hope that the story will appeal to readers worldwide.
Q. What are you working on now?
I can’t say for fear of jinxing it. I am quite superstitious. Suffice to say, it is very preliminary and I have a feeling it will not have to do with Hong Kong and may very well not be historical either.
- Why does Claire steal from the Chens? Why does she stop doing it?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- What is the irony behind Claire’s adoration of the young Princess Elizabeth?
- Were Dominick and Trudy guilty of collaboration, or were they simply trying to survive? Do their circumstances absolve them of their actions?
- 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?
- Did Trudy give her emerald ring and Locket to Melody? How much did Melody really know?
- How do Ned Young’s experiences parallel Trudy’s?
- 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?
- Would Locket be better off knowing the truth about her parentage?
- What would happen if Trudy somehow survived and came back to Will? Could they find happiness together?