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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An incredibly engrossing read
Such a beautifully written and fascinating story. I found myself so quickly and thoroughly caught up in a world that was previously completely unknown to me that it was hard for me to tell where biographical/historical fact ended and novelistic invention began. The fact that the story of Haruko's marriage into the semi-divine confines of Japan's royal family is in fact...
Published on January 27, 2008 by David N

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73 of 83 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The rating fell as I read on
I began this book willing to give it a definite three or possible four based on the concept and the writing, but as I read on the rating steadily fell, until I got to the end convinced that this was worth one star at best. As one other reviewer said, it touched my head but not my heart -- that's a big part of it, but hardly all.

The characters were flat and...
Published on March 17, 2008 by Japan Reader


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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An incredibly engrossing read, January 27, 2008
By 
David N (Los Angeles) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Commoner: A Novel (Hardcover)
Such a beautifully written and fascinating story. I found myself so quickly and thoroughly caught up in a world that was previously completely unknown to me that it was hard for me to tell where biographical/historical fact ended and novelistic invention began. The fact that the story of Haruko's marriage into the semi-divine confines of Japan's royal family is in fact based on a true story only makes this book that much more intriguing. Although it's completely authentic in its tiny details of palace life, ultimately what makes this book so pleasurable in the read is it's first person narrative. Haruko is a marvelous and original character that you can't help but root for. Her journey from a cloistered family upbringing in the rubble of World War II through Japan's remarkable 20th century history is so deep and so true that it's hard to believe it was written by a man. Interestingly , one thing I kept thinking as I was enjoying this wonderful book, is that by bringing me into to the interior life of this uniquely contemporary Japanese monarch that I was somehow gaining access to another late 20th century royal icon - on a different continent - who also paid a price for being born a commoner.
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73 of 83 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The rating fell as I read on, March 17, 2008
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This review is from: The Commoner: A Novel (Hardcover)
I began this book willing to give it a definite three or possible four based on the concept and the writing, but as I read on the rating steadily fell, until I got to the end convinced that this was worth one star at best. As one other reviewer said, it touched my head but not my heart -- that's a big part of it, but hardly all.

The characters were flat and none of them, including Haruko, ever really came alive. She herself was tepid, and most of the others were worse. This made it very hard to sympathize with any of them or their problems. I've lived in Japan for 20 years and know the ins and outs of the royal family pretty well, so I was very disposed in this book's favor when I began. There were a few moments during Haruko's falling in love with the Crown Prince that I did feel a spark of life in the book, and interest in myself. But that faded fairly fast. I suppose the author's intention was to create a book as mannered as the Imperial Family -- well, that succeeded. Mannered unto death, and boredom. Maybe that was his intention too.

It also seemed as if the author was more interested in having each phrase be a work of art than in actually bringing the plot or the characters alive. But this "art," enjoyable enough at the start, gradually became cloying, until by the end of the book I was cringing. A few examples:

"He spoke from his heart, and then he took it with him."
"The eyes I found looking back at me held no past and no future.
"The lack of evidence was so astounding....that over time it had the effect of a powerful narcotic...separating them from their honest perceptions and absorbing all curiosity."

This is purple prose you might expect of a novice, or a romance writer (sorry, romance writer friends), not an author with four published books to his credit. In addition, it seemed he chose images and incidents designed to play to a Western idea of what Japan is. All the cliches are trotted out: red falling maple leaf, the kimono (once a sash is "blood red" -- bit overdone, again), a child whose hair smells of "plum blossoms" (in autumn, metaphors getting a bit messy there). While the problems of Japan's imperial family partly -- or largely -- stem from aspects of their nationality, he's missing the biggest story here, a universal human one. A woman whose job is to produce a child suffers from fertility problems, etc. If drawing a story from the real imperial family, there are much more interesting stories to write than the one we get here. Even this one could have been told with much more life, if the author weren't determined to make it "artful" and "exotic." Japan is way less exotic than people think these days -- it's the land of Toyota, Nintendo, anime -- all of which are part of our lives. Yet people persist in loving these little bits of exoticism more than the true face. Most Japanese didn't like "Lost in Translation" because it played to stereotypes. This book does too.

Finally, a lot is simply unbelievable. Besides the ending, which could never, ever, ever take place. The supposedly touching scene where a father sits on his daughter's bed to talk to her at nighttime, in early 1960s Japan? Well, to start with, I find it hard to believe that a traditional family -- the father's a sake brewer, for goodness' sake -- would have had a bed in that era. But for the father to come in and sit on the side of his daughter's bed -- that would never have happened. It's a very American gesture that even in Japan today would be almost unimaginable. A Japanese father would be far too embarrassed to do that with a grown daughter even now, never mind the early 1960s. The way the Empress expresses herself. What the young, new Crown Princess says at a news conference.

And the author, for all his supposed years of research, messed up some very basic facts. The worst was when he had two people at the imperial family's villa in Nasu, taking "small walks by the seaside." I'm sorry, Nasu is in the mountains. Some people may say that a tiny slip of fact shouldn't make a difference in fiction, but it makes the author seem sloppy. This, on top of the purple prose, really detracted from my reading experience.

I wasn't impressed with "Bicycle Days," which I thought was a patronizing look at Japan that pandered to stereotypes. This book hasn't changed my impression of the author much. I wish I hadn't bought this book in hardcover. Borrow it from the library or wait for it in paperback, please.
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43 of 49 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars His Daughter-in-Law Elect, February 5, 2008
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This review is from: The Commoner: A Novel (Hardcover)
John Burnham Schwartz's roman à clef about the Japanese imperial family takes as its centerpiece one of the most startling stories of the continuation of ancient royal tradition into the twentieth century: the life and career of the current Empress Michiko, the first commoner in memory to marry an heir to the throne. The empress's life has been paradoxically both intensely dramatic and intensely stultifying. Despised by the court insiders (and supposedly in particular by her imperial mother-in-law) for her common birth and unfamiliarity with court customs, and worn down by the dullness of court routine and the strictures of imperial tradition, the empress allegedly had a nervous breakdown in the early 1960s after the birth of her first son, losing her voice completely for several months. Then, when her husband succeeded to the throne and her son wanted to marry another commoner (this time an Oxford-educated career diplomat), she saw her own new daughter-in-law go through the same horrors she had three decades previously and then even more when the young woman cannot produce a male heir.

Schwartz has as his narrator the empress, here known as "Haruko." The names are changed not to protect the innocent, but rather because Schwartz varies from the story of the current empress particularly at the end, where he imagines a different fate for the current crown princess heroically engineered by her kindly mother-in-law. There's little here critical at all of the current empress or of her husband, son, or daughter-in-law: only the emperor's dead parents are treated as in any way less than fully sympathetically (his mother is basically treated as a wicked witch). As a result it seems almost impossible that the crown princess (here called "Keiko") could get into the emotional fix she does, since everyone here seems constantly brimming over with high promises and kindly intentions. (Surely there could have been a more balanced and honest way to tell these women's stories, even as told from the empress's own perspective.) The best thing about the book is its lovely prose style, which seems simultaneously elegant and understated, as prettily befits its subject. And where else will you find a novel told from the point of view of an actual living empress? That rarity alone makes it worthy of attention.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Novel Based on the Life of Japan's Empress Michiko, February 2, 2011
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This review is from: The Commoner: A Novel (Hardcover)
This is the story of Japan's Empress Michiko (and to a lesser extent, her daughter-in-law Princess Masako), thinly disguised as fiction. The names have been changed, along with a (very) few insignificant details, but there is no question that this is virtually, if not technically, a biography. I believe the author chose to publish it as fiction only because of the rigidly protected privacy of the Japanese Imperial Family, who would not have otherwise allowed publication of the book. Thus in this review I am using the real names, not the ones of the characters in the book.

Empress Michiko is highly respected and admired - perhaps even revered - all over the world. And that's all I knew about her before reading this book. I did not know that she was born a commoner, the first commoner ever to marry into the Japanese Imperial Family (much less to the Crown Prince himself) in all its centuries-long history. She did this before Princess Di was even born. And suffered the same difficulties in making the adjustment that Diana did, yet we never heard about that due to the extreme privacy of the Japanese nobility. Michiko even had a couple of nervous breakdowns in the 1960's during which she was unable to speak. A large part of the reason for this was the bullying by her mother-in-law, then Empress of Japan.

Yet unlike Diana, Michiko stayed and toughed it out, to end up as the global figure of respect and grace that she is today. Perhaps it helped that there truly seems to be genuine love between Michiko and her husband. But anyone who's had a long-term marriage knows that that didn't happen by accident, but because the couple worked to make it happen.

And now her daughter-in-law Masako is undergoing the same suffering. For Masako, the cultural shock is even worse. She grew up in the Western world and was accustomed to the freedom and independence of a highly intelligent, wealthy, and highly educated young career woman. She understood (apparently far better than either Michiko or Diana did) what it would mean to marry the Crown Prince. No wonder it took six years of courtship and several rejected marriage proposals before she finally agreed to it under enormous pressure from her own family as well as the Japanese Imperial Family and the entire country of Japan.

The Japanese court is far more medieval and rigid in its protocols, rules, and expectations than the English one ever was. Only those brought up in it are able to tolerate such a life successfully. It seems harsh and snobbish, but as long as they continue in such traditions, previous generations of royalty were probably wise to insist that their children do not marry outside of the nobility.

To give some examples of how harsh the protocol is, Michiko was only allowed to visit her family home once after her marriage. She did not see her parents for twenty years. And her parents NEVER saw their grandchildren in real life, only in photos. That's just heartbreaking.

At this time, Masako - formerly a vivacious, happy, and competent young woman - has been retired from public life for about a decade due to mental instability (Adjustment Disorder.)

The book is not a criticism or dismissal of Japanese culture or of their Royal Family. On the contrary, it shows the beauty and strength of both the ancient culture of nobility and the average Japanese person's lifestyle. It simply shows us (without lecturing) the great contrast between, and thus the incompatibility of, the two. The plight of both young women and that of the Court are described with compassion and respect. Like the author, we come to admire and even be amazed at Michiko's hard-won ability to rise above the situation with dignity and elegance.

The book is very well - sometimes even beautifully - written and consistently interesting. Another advantage of writing this as fiction are the dialogues, and the thoughts and feelings of the characters. These allow for great beauty and character development which would not be possible in a straightforward biography.

The ending is completely fictional.

Since this is "a work of fiction", of course there are no photographs. But the interested reader can find many on the Internet. The ones of Michiko's and Masako's weddings are particularly interesting, especially the video of Michiko's wedding where you can see that it takes two women attendants to help hold up Michiko's multi-layered and extremely heavy traditional dress, so that she can walk.

After reading this book, I wanted to learn more about the true story. Little has been written due to the strictly-guarded privacy of the Imperial Family's personal life. But I did find *Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne*, by Ben Hills. (Not surprisingly, there was a huge controversy over its publication and it was banned in Japan.) I've ordered it and will post a review once I've read it.

(Heehee - as I write this, Japanese music is playing on my local classical music radio station. I've never heard that before on this station. Must be fate.)

(351 pages)

Quotes from *The Commoner*:

"One doesn't stop wanting certain things simply because they've been taken away; one simply wants them more. That's what it is to be young. And later in life it is those youthful desires, sharpened by denial, that are the first of the dreams one is coerced into smothering. The trick is to appear to kill desire while actually storing it away in a place so private that no greater authority will ever know of its existence. A kind of bunker, as in a war."

"To lose a daughter to another household is comprehensible; to lose her to another world defeats the mind, to say nothing of the heart. And, once she has committed herself, it is for life. She will never be able to leave that world. She will be sealed in forever."

"You're my daughter - courage isn't a choice for you. Consider it an unreturnable gift from your ancestors. You might think you don't want it now, but when you're my age you'll be thankful."

"But life is not an echo, endlessly returning the past to us so that we might read and reread in its fading variations the meanings we cannot keep ourselves from wanting."

"I have never known a goodbye that was as it should be."

"I've discovered something: it is possible to recover from a catastrophic loss without ever getting over it."

"Because, after a certain point, there is no coming back. For me, that point was Simon's death. For Kenji, it was the fire that destroyed his face. We have all lost something, those of us who are a little strange."
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From Freedom to Subjugation in a Luxurious Setting, February 26, 2008
By 
Donald Mitchell "Jesus Loves You!" (Thanks for Providing My Reviews over 124,000 Helpful Votes Globally) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Commoner: A Novel (Hardcover)
If you like prince and princess stories, this one will probably appeal to you.

In all of the fairy tales about prince and princesses, the authors wisely end the story after they fall in love or marry by saying some version of "and they lived happily ever after." But do princes and princesses really live happily after marriage? The harshly publicized marriage between Prince Charles and Princess Diana suggests that it's not inevitable that it all works out.

Why? Royal persons of all kinds are figureheads subject to lots of arbitrary rules and restraints that would drive a normal person crazy. If the person married isn't from that background, can depression be avoided?

In The Commoner John Burnham Schwartz bases his fictional story on the public events in the lives of the Japanese Imperial family. Using good imagination, he describes what it might have been like to leave a carefree life to become the consort of the Crown Prince.

His narrator is Haruko, the bride of the prince. You'll feel like you are reading about a slave's life in places. Many people will find this book evoking tears of sadness or regret on Haruko's behalf.

The book's main strength is making Japan and the Imperial family accessible to Western readers. That strength carries the first half of the book which is by far the more interesting part.

The book has a few weaknesses:

1. Everything is built up around dramatic scenes, and the tone is always too high to reflect real life.

2. The book's resolution is a weak one that doesn't adequately deal with the issues the author raises.

3. Other than Haruko, the characters are not as well developed as they might have been. As a result, the story is often flat unless some visceral event takes place.

4. Haruko's life becomes an occasional sketch of a scene after she becomes a mother. With so many blank places, Haruko becomes distant to us.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Splendid!, January 27, 2008
By 
Hope S. (Los Angeles) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Commoner: A Novel (Hardcover)
This is one of the most beautiful and moving books I've read in years. To be given such witness to the practice of ancient nobility is a rare gift. And to be given that gift in the form of an enticing and sympathetic main character is all the more rare and wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed every page. This is a must read.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you liked "Remains of the Day" ..., January 29, 2008
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This review is from: The Commoner: A Novel (Hardcover)
... then it's hard to imagine you disliking "The Commoner." Though it must be said that, given the layers of impenetrability surrounding the Chrysanthemum Throne, Schwartz attempts an even more difficult summit here than Ishiguro in his best-known work. And he succeeds. At its fundament, "The Commoner" is a story of two women ceremonially bound to a fate neither quite chosen nor quite resisted - at least on the surface. Beneath is where Schwartz works his alchemy. I particularly enjoyed Haruko's verbal jousts with the royal pest of the Imperial Court ... cherry blossoms laced with acetate. It's a testament to the author's skill and restraint that, in tracing Haruko's steps, we feel all at once the finery of the silk, the suffocation of the sash, and the stony indifference of the centuries underfoot. Daring and skillful. Five stars.
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46 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Based on a true story, January 25, 2008
By 
Diana Phillips (Gulfport, MS USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Commoner: A Novel (Hardcover)
I just learned of this book's release and, after reading the synopsis (haven't gotten my hands on the actual book yet), wanted to let other readers know that the premise of the novel is based on fact, though that's not mentioned in the Amazon information. This modern historical element may be as fascinating to others as it is to me. Empress Michiko of Japan married the current Emperor in the Fifties and suffered a similar breakdown that led to her "losing her voice" for an extended period of time. This story was widely reported in Japan and the Empress (Princess Michiko at the time) was (and remains) a very popular figure with Japanese public who regard her as one of "their own" - someone not from established nobility. Rather like Princess Diana, really. This novelization is definitely going on my must-read list!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Sense of Duty, June 26, 2008
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This review is from: The Commoner: A Novel (Hardcover)
Like Queen Elizabeth II, this book is based on a sense of duty. However, the two female characters, Haruko and Keiko, were commoners and gave up their educated, modern lives to become part of Japan's royal family. And I'm not sure why they did it.
Haruko was an athletic, bright girl absolutely adored by her father. She was not treated as inferior because she was a female. He was a successful businessman who gave his daughter freedom of choice. Nevertheless, when Haruko decides to accept the proposal from the Prince, her father is accepting but knows that he will never really see her again.
Haruko seems to love her husband but the confines and duties of her new life lead to despondency. Her mother-in-law, the Empress, represents the worst of all mother-in-laws with her constant criticism. This badgering and disapproval enhance her depression. Haruko luckily gives birth to the heir, a son. When it is time for the son to marry, he also falls in love with a modern, creative Japanese woman. Keiko also is persuaded to marry this Crown Prince. I cannot make any sense of why she would accept this future, except out of a sense of duty and a plea from Haruko.
Tragedy follows Keiko and she becomes more depressed and out of touch. She is trapped in the royal life which is the antithesis of her pre-marriage years when she traveled, made decisions and laughed. The end of the book is interesting and there is some triumph for these two commoners. However, it is difficult to grasp that these modern women would dedicate their lives to an ancient tradition.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars View of the Japanese Imperial Family from the Inside Out, March 7, 2012
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This review is from: The Commoner: A Novel (Hardcover)
John Burnham Schwartz takes into the heart of the Japanese Imperial family with this fictionalized story of the current Empress Michiko and to a lesser extent the Crown Princess Masako. Haruko (the novelized Michiko) as a commoner was quite unprepared to enter the highly controlled world of the Imperial Court. However, as Japan emerges from WWII and tries to rebuild, she sees the marriage, despite her parents misgivings, as obligation for the country. Schwartz narrates from Haruko's point of view. He takes us into her mind and lets us see the challenges and the joys, though more the former than the latter. She is expected to produce a male heir as soon as possible, but the thought of her raising her own children, is heretical to the court. There is almost no room for personal wants or desires, and Haruko has badly misjudged how difficult her life will be. Even her parents, who live in Tokyo, rarely get to see her. She has no friends or peers. The psychological toil is so great that she loses her voice for a period of time. It is almost a wonder, that is all the toll. When her son, the Crown Prince Yasuhito, marries another commoner, Haruko wishes to nurture and protect Keiko, but even that is too difficult.
Although many seem to criticize the ending, they are taking it far too literal. Indeed the escapist fantasy that concludes the book is more commentary on the only means to freedom rather to be taken to the word.
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The Commoner: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries)
The Commoner: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries) by John Burnham Schwartz (Paperback - January 6, 2009)
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