The book jacket for Janice Y.K. Lee’s debut novel The Piano Teacher contains a review blurb that compares the work to Atonement. While that analogy might be a lot for a first-time novelist to live up to, Lee’s tale does share with Ian McEwan’s bestseller a WWII setting and a key plot point of a character’s tragic mistake. The Piano Teacher (not to be confused with another book of that title, the most famous one by 2004 Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek) also has echoes of Lust, Caution, the 2007 Ang Lee film about sex and espionage in WWII Hong Kong. In short, Lee’s fiction is so cinematic that one is surprised that the movie rights have not been snapped up.
The book originally began as a short story set in the 1970s, but Lee began reading about World War II, and the story evolved from there. Lee read books and researched newspaper articles of the WWII era, focusing on the minutiae of everyday life from transportation logistics to hairstyles. That short story eventually served as the basis of the first chapter.
“I was looking for something to expand into a novel, and [that chapter] was the first thing that could be expanded into something larger,” Lee says. She spoke to us from Atlanta, where she was promoting her book.
But, for all the cinematic flourishes of The Piano Teacher, Lee’s tale is a book, first and foremost, a good read. At the outset, English expatriate Will Truesdale comes to Hong Kong as a young man, a wanderer and knowing no one. Both these problems are solved once he meets Trudy Liang, a scandalous socialite reminiscent of those populating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz-era set.
“Will was the most difficult character for me to write. I had finished Part 1 when I began asking, ‘Who is Will?’” Lee says. “I think that’s part of who he is, [that he’s] difficult to know.”
Ten years after the book’s opening, the piano teacher of the title, Claire Pendleton, arrives in the city and begins working for the Chens, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent families. The English rose soon becomes entrenched in a scandal linking Will, Trudy and the Chens.
Lee began writing with the idea of a blond piano teacher firmly in mind. “I knew she was uncomfortable with [Hong Kong], and details [came to me] as a series of epiphanies about the character,” she says. The exception was lively Trudy, who sprang fully formed from her creator’s mind.
Lee’s prose depicts the period’s opulence and squalor, as well as the fragility of human emotions. Her eye for capturing details lends itself to her belief that a story can never have too much detail, but must retain accuracy. “If you know something and read something inaccurate about it, it can jar you out of the story,” Lee says. “I didn’t want that to happen.”