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The Commoner: A Novel Hardcover – January 22, 2008

4.0 out of 5 stars 102 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Schwartz bases his finely wrought fourth novel on the life of Empress Michiko of Japan, the first commoner to marry into the Japanese imperial family. Haruko Tsuneyasu grows up in postwar rural Japan and studies at Sacred Heart University, where she excels—particularly and fatefully—at tennis, which provides her entrée to the crown prince, whom she handily beats in an exhibition match. After more meetings on and off the court, the prince asks Haruko to marry him. Persuaded by their mutual attraction and by assurances that the break with tradition will usher in a modern era, Haruko ultimately agrees, against her father's wishes, to become the first commoner turned royal. But, as her father had feared, her freedom and ambition suffer under the stifling rituals of court life. Eventually, Haruko succumbs to the inescapable judgment of the empress and her entourage, falling mute after the birth of her son, Yasuhito. Though the narrative loses some of its life after Haruko marries—perhaps mirroring Haruko's experience within the palace walls—urgency returns after Haruko chooses a wife for Yasuhito; the marriage tests Haruko's dedication to the crown. Schwartz (Reservation Road) pulls off a grand feat in giving readers a moving dramatization of a cloistered world.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

John Burnham Schwartz bases his fourth novel on the Empress Michiko and Crown Princess Masako of Japan. Though Japanese imperial life remains shrouded in mystery, Schwartz teases out the details through extensive research. Much to the astonishment and pleasure of the critics, he gives Haruko an authentic and completely convincing voice. While his vivid depictions of postwar Japan are stunning, it is Haruko’s vibrant inner life that propels the narrative and resounds with readers. Though not as intense as Reservation Road (1998), Schwartz’s unflinching portrayal of the aftermath of a child’s death, and though slightly marred by an implausible ending, The Commoner will captivate readers by providing a haunting look into the 2,000 years of secrets surrounding the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1st edition (January 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385515715
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385515719
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (102 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,980,778 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: 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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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).
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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.
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