Nearly everything is as pretty as a chic magazine in Janice YK Lee’s much ballyhooed debut novel, THE PIANO TEACHER. For all that, just about every character is an anti-hero. The story is set in a cosmopolitan section of Hong Kong that swarms with a mix of wealthy Chinese and over-privileged Brits. Lee’s characters drink Pimm’s and champagne amid rich people’s detritus– “…Persian carpets, and the occasional Chinese table topped with Burmese silver bowls…”, Herend bric-a-brac, Murano perfume bottles, Hermes scarves.
The story opens with the arrival of newlywed Claire Pendleton in the colony, following World War II . Thereafter, the sequence of events owes a great deal to E. M. Forster, Paul Scott and Michael Ondaatje. Twenty-eight tear-old Claire is a provincial with more pejudices than smarts–think A PASSAGE TO INDIA. She meets forty-something, war scarred Will Truesdale with whom she embarks on an affair–think THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Lo and behold, she begins to shed her prejudices and practically goes native–think THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN.
Lee’s plot alternates between past and present. Brit Will Truesdale arrives in pre-war Hong Kong. He mingles with the elite and falls in love with insufferably cute Trudy Liang, the daughter of a Portuguese beauty and a wealthy Chinese. Their romance is one of the most dismal ever to go to press. He is too self-contained to show his feelings and she is too self-absorbed to own up to her superficiality. It isn’t her fault, poor dear. It is all imposed from without,
“People have always expected me to be bad and thoughtless and shallow and I do my best to accommodate their expectations.” And,
“I’ve always known I am a chameleon, my love. I was a terrible daughter because my father let me be one…If I was with a scoundrel, then I became the kind of woman that would be with a scoundrel.”
But no matter. The important thing is that she is a “whippet thin” as an Elle model–Lee is a former editor of that magazine– an heiress, she owns heaps of great clothes, including a dress the color of orange sherbet, and fab jewelry, including an emerald the size of the Ritz. What is more, she bathes in Badedas and she wears jasmine perfume. These are indubitably clues to her character, but I cannot muster the interest to find out their meaning. She prattles, bathes and drinks.
Then comes the war and Trudy has occasion to deliver herself of pearls of wisdom,
“If you act as if you were bulletproof, most people will assume you are…”
“Everything seems better in the morning…”‘
What with the Japanese hellbent on visiting all manner of villainies upon the Chinese and the Brits–the good Japanese in this story are very sketchily drawn–a shortage of Badedas and most other essentials ensues, Will is clapped into a detention camp, Trudy starts a dangerous relationship with a porcine Japanese–truly bad characters cannot be whippet thin– member of the gendarmerie and so does her epicene cousin Dominique.
Cut to Claire whose presence in Hong Kong coincides with the Coronation and an examination of who did what during the war. As she continues her voyage of self-discovery, Claire gets a job teaching the daughter of the wealthy and “exquisite” Victor and Melody Chen. She becomes a cleptomaniac, yearns for a baby–is there a connection here?–and gets nowhere fast with Will–think OUT OF AFRICA. Collaborators try to justify themselves, war prisoners try to return to normal life, and the story ends as one would expect it to end.
Would I buy this book? As Trudy says when she does not want to answer a question,