Why oh why do so many authors these days insist on a dual-storyline structure? What’s wrong with a single, straightforward story, told well? With two stories, you have not two, but three opportunities to mess up: story one, story two, and the balance between the two. Is it really worth the risk? In the case of Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher, I think not.
The book opens with the story of the piano teacher herself, an 1950s Englishwoman named Claire Pendleton who has recently moved to Hong Kong wit her husband. To fill her time and earn a little extra money, she has started teaching piano to the young daughter of the Chens, a prominent Chinese couple. She’s also developed the inexplicable habit of nicking valuables from the Chens’ home. This bit of thievery is perhaps her first step outside the traditional bounds of what’s expected. Her next, more serious step involves falling into an affair with Will Truesdale, an Englishman and the Chens’ chauffeur. But Will seems haunted, and the memories that haunt him form the other storyline of the book.
That other storyline, set 10 years earlier, focuses on Will and his life in Hong Kong during World War II. During that time, Will falls madly in love with Trudy Liang, a Eurasian woman who seems to be the toast of Hong Kong society. Trudy is adventurous, witty, sensual, and attractive—the sort of woman who wins over everyone she meets and gets whatever she wants. When the Japanese invade Hong Kong, she is convinced that her charms and good fortune will keep her and everyone around her out of trouble. Before long, though, Will must go to an interment camp. Trudy refuses to go, believing that she can wheedle her way into a better life on the outside, and perhaps even find ways to help Will.
Both of the storylines here have potential. I was intrigued with Claire’s thefts and with how encountering a different culture might shape her. But the affair ended up being kind of boring and predictable and seemed like little more than a way into the more dramatic war story that eventually became the emotional core of the book. The war story offers a lot more potential for excitement, but even that story was short on surprises. The biggest surprises happened when a whole new element of suspense was introduced in the final third of the book—the surprise there was the introduction of the new storyline; the storyline itself also followed a predictable course.
I’ve said before that my standards for audiobooks are sometimes considerably lower than my standards for print books. If a book keeps me moderately entertained while I’m driving to and from work, it’ll do. This book did keep me moderately entertained most of the time. I did consider giving up at one point because the predictability got boring, but then the new element was introduced, and I got curious to see where it was going. Once I figured that out, I was too close to the end to bother quitting.
I think the larger problem than the predictability was the artificial feeling of the book. The characters just never came alive. The narration has a strange sort of distant quality that keeps reader and characters apart. The other problem had to do with the structure, as mentioned in the opening. In the last half of the book, Claire seems only to exist to listen to people talk about Trudy. There are a couple of big developments in her life, but they’re brushed over. But she’s the title character! It seems almost like Lee was trying to write two stories of equal emotional weight and then the Trudy and Will story took over. The problem is that it didn’t occur to anyone to just make that the main story, with Claire either gone or existing as nothing but an observer and listener from the get-go. As it is, the end result feels sort of cock-eyed, which is the danger of the dual-storyline novel.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is a terrible book. It wasn’t! The audiobook, read by Orlagh Cassidy, was well-done, and the book’s descriptions created a strong sense of place—I really enjoyed the descriptions of the city and of the camp and of Hong Kong life during the war. It’s just that the good stuff was mostly sort of ordinary, never particularly exciting and never good enough to get me to overlook the book’s flaws.