The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee (response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)
Score one for product placement--this book was all over bookstore displays, and the beautiful cover caught my eye. Well, perhaps not a complete score for the commercial sector--it caught my eye, so I remembered it and looked for it at the library.
The story appears, at first, to be a simple one--newlywed and new arrival in 1950s Hong Kong, Claire doesn't need to give piano lessons financially-speaking, but needs something to occupy her time. Hired by the wealthy Chens, she finds herself intrigued by their mysterious past and falling in love with their brooding, also mysterious driver, Will. Following the path (lined with banana peels and butter, but we could have told her that) which leads to destruction, she pursues a liason with Will.
Interspersed with the 1950s storyline are flashbacks to 1941, when Will was in an entirely different social position, and pursuing an entirely different sort of woman, Trudy. While Claire is reserved and delicate, Trudy is vivacious and dangerous. The war arrives in Hong Kong and violence and oppression send the elite socialites reeling.
From a writing point of view, this book is fascinating. Lee intersperses the past and present scenes with such aplomb that I never felt the presence of the writer, just dove into each scene with excitement. The 1941 scenes were written in present tense, which I usually abhor--but hers was done so unobtrusively that I hardly noticed the tense change, merely a sense of dark immediacy.
From a plot point of view--I was hooked on discovering what had happened, which an interesting change of pace from wanting to know what will happen. And the journey was an enjoyable one to make those discoveries. However, it also led to a bit of a dilemma--what to do with the somewhat fizzly "what will happen" storyline of Will and Claire, set in the "present time" of the book? This made the ending feel a bit forced and unfulfilling for me, like a denouement in a nutshell.
My one major issue with the plot was the infidelity. Infidelity happens, and can be an incredibly strong plot element. But I just didn't feel that here. I didn't see a truly compelling reason for Claire to cheat on her husband--boredom and an attractive man are not, in my view, a good reason to deceive and hurt someone. And this didn't seem to be a huge question for Claire--it just sort of happened. So while I'm certainly not in denial that marriages don't always make it, I also want to see them fight and struggle to live a little more than I saw here. Maybe that's my worldview getting in the way, and not the author's fault.
The real story here is in 1941--not the book's 1950s plotline. While I enjoyed the dual timeline, something needed to happen with the 1950s timeline to make our title character, The Piano Teacher Claire, less of a piece of information-seeking furniture and more of an active participant. That said, I would recommend this read--experiencing WWII in Hong Kong with Will and Trudy is worth it.