To call a novel cinematic is usually to imply that it has sufficiently failed to flesh out its characters, who might fare better on the big screen, where slow pans and sumptuous sets can do the work of a spotty narrative. In the case of Janice Y. K. Lee's The Piano Teacher, the impulse to think "movie" springs not from the book's weakness but its strength. Having enjoyed the company of Lee's characters so much on the page, I thought it would be nice to hang out with them in another medium.
The Piano Teacher introduces us to Will Truesdale, a high-level English official living in British-controlled Hong Kong in the years leading up to its invasion by the Japanese in 1941. Before the war, he's the lover of Trudy Liang, a half-Portuguese, half-Chinese society belle who snatches him up upon arrival and introduces him to Hong Kong's heady circle of English officials, Chinese businessmen, experts and reinvented outcasts of all kinds. But after the war dissolves society as they know it, Will winds up as a chauffeur to Trudy's cousins, the Chens, with whom he once socialized. While in the Chens' employ, Will meets Claire Pendleton, a shy Englishwoman hired to give their daughter piano lessons.
Having narrowly escaped spinsterhood by marrying a dull British functionary, Claire blossoms in Hong Kong, both in looks and personality, and her growing confidence brings her new hungers, chief among them, Will. On the surface, Will's pre- and post-war lovers seem like opposites: Trudy is a sphinx who controls him absolutely, Claire is a naïf humbled by his enigmatic remove. But we learn that, like the characters themselves, Will's story is filled with buried truths and complex loyalties.
The Piano Teacher is Lee's first novel. Readers expecting a grittily realist portrait of war or a literary tour de force may be disappointed; in the end, this romantic tale of smoky intrigues, near misses, two-faced villains and secretive lovers resolves into a good old-fashioned mystery. But Lee, a former Elle editor, handles the well-worn plot with style.