Our September novel was The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee. This past Sunday several Litwits got together to discuss our thoughts and feelings on the story. To be honest, we haven’t had such a quiet, almost confused meetup in awhile – perhaps ever. Very odd considering how long we’ve been together, our first year anniversary meetup! I think the befuddlement came from not fully knowing what to do with Lee’s story – especially the character of Claire.
My first question to everyone was whether or not they liked the book. Most people quietly murmured or nodded their ascent – yet you could tell no one was really sure of themselves. What we all pretty quickly agreed on was that no one liked Claire. Whether the dislike was born from her compulsion to steal trinkets from the Chens or her affair with Will or an overall disdain for her entire personality was never pinned down.
We discussed several of the novel’s themes: East meets West, class structure, race, war, the condition of pretty much all classes and cultures in human society to torture and oppress those they deem the ‘enemy’ or foreign. And then, as a group, we struggled with what one member claimed was the most anti-climatic of climaxes ever.
After the meetup (and after watching the Emmys cause I’m kind of a dork), I got to thinking more about Lee’s novel and what she was attempting to do with her narrative. Before the meetup, I was down the middle with this book – parts I loved, parts I hated. Lee’s writing is very stark and concise and there were moments of literary genius sprinkled lightly throughout. But sometime around 2 AM this morning, I finally decided that the story actually has a quiet sort of genius about as readers is to ascertain in what ways they are similar and how they ultimately differ. Their connection is Will Truesdale – and if we view each woman through his eyes we’ll find the hidden truth of each (after all, I doubt Lee named her male lead Truesdale without meaning to).
Trudy sinks her claws into Will almost as soon as he plants foot in Hong Kong in 1941. He, like most others, immediately succumbs to her overwhelming persona, her charisma, her Eurasian beauty. Trudy is the type of woman who commands attention and even when being downright despicable makes friends. She is a fully painted canvas (probably a Jackson Polluck) and over the war years we deconstruct her as a painting until the war strips her of everything, leaving her a blank canvas upon death. Trudy is Will’s coming of age, his sexual awakening, and his loss of innocence.
Flash forward to 1952: Here we meet Claire Pendleton who is not only new to Hong Kong, but new to marriage with a husband she barely knows – and more poignantly, new to life. Whereas Trudy ends as a blank canvas, Claire begins as one. Unlike many other British ex-pats Lee describes, Hong Kong becomes Claire, enhances her. In the same way that Trudy owned Will upon his arrival, Hong Kong owns Claire. She’d much rather be among the native Chinese than the high-class ex-pats and their expensive tea parties. Lee goes so far as to sexualize Claire’s relationship with Hong Kong:
“[Claire] turned around but the woman had already disappeared. She breathed deeply. The smells of the wet market entered her, intense and earthy. Around her, Hong Kong thrummed.”
In Claire’s Hong Kong, she struggles to find herself. She takes those trinkets of Melody’s to try on the Chen’s lifestyle, to feel alive, to test her own boundaries and limits. Will sees through her immediately – probably recognizes his pre-Trudy self in her. He enters into his relationship with Claire in a role reversal – he is now in control and I believe he wants Claire to punish him so that he can finally absolve himself and pay penance for the guilt he still feels over abandoning Trudy. And in the end, Claire does abandon Will, her husband, the life she has known to disappear among the locals as a fully matured woman on her own.
Trudy and Claire, on the surface, are stories that end on the same page. Each woman dissolves from society, sort of fizzles away from the public eye with no one really knowing or understanding what has happened to her. But whereas Trudy has gone from the grandest excess to the barest trace of her own humanity, Claire has blossomed into a fleshed-out, complicated picture of the female experience.
Next month’s book is Angela’s Ashes – the meetup is already scheduled on the site! I look forward to seeing everyone then!