A good friend recommended this book to me because she thought I would like it. She compared it to The Painted Veil, which pretty much sold me on it. The story is told in two parts. One takes place in post WWII Hong Kong in the early 1950’s and one is in the Hong Kong of the early 1940’s, just before and during WWII. The later story centers on Claire, a young British newlywed just arrived to Hong Kong. She becomes a piano teacher for the daughter of a wealthy Chinese family. While there she meets Will Truesdale, their chauffeur and begins an affair with him. The 1940’s story that is woven in and out is that of Will and Trudy, a beautiful Eurasian woman.
I liked the setting, both time and place. The 1940’s storyline is particularly compelling as it deals with what compromises people make to survive a war. H.’s family was in Hong Kong and China during WWII and that made the novel even more interesting for me. Will and Trudy’s story really grabbed me. Their characters weren’t necessarily likable but they were believable. In comparison, the 1950’s story suffered. I didn’t like the character of Will as much in the later years. I think Lee was trying to show how the war had changed him, but he wasn’t nearly as interesting and his motivations were difficult to understand. Claire comes across as whiny and spoiled. It’s ok to have a main character who is unlikable but it’s more difficult to make the reader invested in what happens to that character. I didn’t feel like Lee was able to pull that off here.
I thought the comparison to The Painted Veil was a good one, in the subject and the setting. The Painted Veil was made into a movie and the ending was significantly changed. It’s one of the only times that I thought the movie was better and that I was glad that they had changed the ending. The movie doesn’t give a happy ending but it does give the characters a chance at redemption. The book has a much less satisfying ending. Similarly, The Piano Teacher left me feeling unsatisfied. The last 1/4 or so of the book feels poorly put together. The author is trying to tie up several story lines and it ended up feeling forced and rushed to me. (Interestingly, I read in an interview with the author at the end of the book that she “did not know where The Piano Teacher would end up, and many times toward the end, I was scratching my head trying to get characters out of the sticky situations I had got them in…”) There is one major plot twist revealed at the end that is fairly obvious from the very beginning. But, the main reason I think that the ending was unsatisfying was that neither Claire nor Will seems changed at the end. Claire is sort of a wan, annoying character at the beginning and she remains that way at the end. Finally, I don’t mind a book with adultery in it but I do mind when it’s treated like it’s morally acceptable. This book doesn’t exactly do that but there is a feeling that the affair is understandable and even inevitable. That bothered me.
After that review, you might think I hated the book. I didn’t. I enjoyed the 1940’s story quite a bit and at times had a hard time putting it down (even when I knew I needed to go to bed). But it’s not without some flaws.