A historical and romantic narrative, alternating between the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II and a time roughly ten years later that follows the tragic consequences of that occupation.
The central figure is Will Truesdale, who across this ten-year period is involved with two vastly different women. In 1952 he meets Claire Pendleton, the piano teacher of the title, who’s come to Hong Kong with her dull and unimaginative husband, a civil engineer overseeing the building of a reservoir. Claire finds a position teaching Locket Chen, the ten-year-old daughter of Melody and Victor Chen, the latter a successful and Anglophilic businessman with a dark past. Will is the Chens’ chauffeur, an anomalous position for a Westerner, but Victor well knows that having Will in this position elevates Victor’s status in the Chinese community. Lee presents her narrative antiphonally, so the story frequently flashes back to Will’s other lover, the beautiful Eurasian Trudy Liang, daughter of a Chinese father and a Portuguese beauty. Trudy is impulsive, pragmatic and strong—she’s willing to do anything to guarantee that her relationship with Will survives the dire and dangerous time when the Japanese take over the government of Hong Kong. She submits herself to the will of the powerful Otsubo, who serves practically as a warlord. He’s trying to recover a mysterious cache of priceless Chinese artifacts and is willing to engage in any activity—including torture and murder—to get what he wants. Only three people know the whereabouts of the trove, and this knowledge gives them power while at the same time putting them in danger. Despite Will’s warning to Claire (“ ‘I don’t like to love…You should be forewarned. I don’t believe in it’ ”), the piano teacher is sucked into the maelstrom of his passion—and learns more than she expected to about the human implications of the dark events of the war.
A lush examination of East-West relations.