Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Piano Teacher

Title: The Piano Teacher
Author: Janice K. Lee
Year: 2009
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4

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. I got my copy at Barnes&Noble for $5.00- for some reason, I bought it, because it looked like a terribly interesting book. Don't waste your money, though. It'll probably be in your library if you need a decent read.
As always, keep reading, pageturners.

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