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The Commonerby John Burnham Schwartz
Synopses & Reviews
It is 1959 when Haruko, a young woman of good family, marries the Crown Prince of Japan, the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. She is the first non-aristocratic woman to enter the longest-running, almost hermetically sealed, and mysterious monarchy in the world. Met with cruelty and suspicion by the Empress and her minions, Haruko is controlled at every turn. The only interest the court has in her is her ability to produce an heir. After finally giving birth to a son, Haruko suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her voice. However, determined not to be crushed by the imperial bureaucrats, she perseveres. Thirty years later, now Empress herself, she plays a crucial role in persuading another young woman — a rising star in the foreign ministry — to accept the marriage proposal of her son, the Crown Prince. The consequences are tragic and dramatic.
Told in the voice of Haruko, meticulously researched and superbly imagined, The Commoner is the mesmerizing, moving, and surprising story of a brutally rarified and controlled existence at once hidden and exposed, and of a complex relationship between two isolated women who, despite being visible to all, are truly understood only by each other. With the unerring skill of a master storyteller, John Burnham Schwartz has written his finest novel yet.
"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 entre 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. (Jan.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Writing about the Japanese imperial family can be risky business. Last year the publisher of the Japanese edition of 'Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne,' Ben Hills' biography of the current princess consort, dropped the book. A smaller Tokyo publisher picked it up but was unable to place ads for it in any major Japanese newspapers. Meanwhile, Hills received a letter signed by the... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Grand Chamberlain to His Majesty the Emperor, protesting the many 'inaccuracies' in his book. Foreign ministry officials also sent letters of complaint to Hills' Australian publisher. The controversy continues with both the Imperial Household Agency and Hills vying to persuade their audience. John Burnham Schwartz, author of 'Bicycle Days,' 'Reservation Road' and 'Claire Marvel,' must have known about this unusual affair as he was writing 'The Commoner,' an excellent novel based on the life of the current empress of Japan. Many of the details of his story coincide with actual events from the royal family's recent history. The 'commoner' of the title is Haruko Endo, born in 1934 (the same year as Empress Michiko) to a prosperous Tokyo family, whose patriarch is the head of a sake brewing company. (The empress' father was president of Nisshin Flour Milling Company.) As Haruko relates her story — in a delicate voice that the reader can easily accept as that of the future bride of the crown prince — we learn of her hardships during the war years, her sheltered life at a prestigious Catholic school and the joyful summers spent in the resort town of Karuizawa, where she first encounters the crown prince on the tennis courts. The romance blossoms under the watchful eyes of imperial handlers and the ubiquitous press. Haruko gives this impression of the crown prince: 'Born into radiance, he seemed to have no interest in radiance for its own sake. He could be shy, awkward even, when met on the guarded line between his public duties and his private self. ... His silence had a surprisingly generous quality, which neither encouraged nor demanded silence in return.' But the burden of even contemplating marriage to a future emperor is too much for her to bear, and the parents wisely whisk her off to Europe. Upon her return she is invited to the royal palace: 'The search for you was long and thorough. And quite unprecedented,' the empress tells Haruko. 'Of course, whenever there is a break of this magnitude with the past, there will be concerns. The question of lineage, for instance.' In an oblique way, the empress is referring to the tradition of selecting a royal bride from only the most prominent aristocratic families, a custom that has lasted for more than 2,000 years. News of the commoner's engagement results in an outpouring of public approval. The imperial representative explains the family's position: 'We as a nation have reached a stage in our history when certain ancient practices must be thoughtfully adjusted in order to best represent the spirit of the people.' After a detailed description of the couple's celebrated wedding in 1959, Schwartz's narrative winds deeper into the imperial court and the oppressive demands on the new princess. Haruko seeks relief from some of her official duties with the gentle support of her husband. She stumbles with words and deeds deemed unacceptable for a princess consort. She loses her voice for months. Gradually, she recovers and, with the death of the emperor, is thrust into the more demanding role of empress. She performs her primary imperial duty by bearing a son (modeled after Crown Prince Naruhito) and a daughter. As they mature, the drama shifts to the crown prince's love interest, Keiko Mori, a brilliant career diplomat educated at Oxford. Keiko's profile nearly fits that of the current Princess Masako, another commoner who suffered similar consequences for marrying into the imperial household. Thus, the author has willingly entered a minefield surrounding the palace much like the one Ben Hills stomped on. Schwartz's story, hewing so close to the life of Empress Michiko and Princess Masako, can only displease the Imperial Household Agency — particularly with the surprise ending. But readers should be delighted. Schwartz has written a mesmerizing novel full of tenderness and compassion, one that convincingly invests the Japanese empress' voice with all the nuance it demands. Kunio Francis Tanabe, former senior editor and art director of The Washington Post Book World, was born and raised in Japan. His e-mail address is kftanabe(at symbol)yahoo.com." Reviewed by Kunio Francis Tanabe, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"This story is as ethereal and sensual as a Japanese watercolor, as magical and dark as a fairy tale." Booklist
"With a strong narrative voice and well-researched historical background." Library Journal
"The details of life for upper-class Japanese during and after World War II are fascinating...but readers may be put off by the way Schwartz creates thoughts and feelings for his thinly veiled characterizations of living people. Not likely to go over well with the Japanese royals." Kirkus Reviews
"[F]inely wrought....Schwartz pulls off a grand feat in giving readers a moving dramatization of a cloistered world." School Library Journal
It is 1959 when Haruko marries the Crown Prince of Japan. Thirty years later, now Empress herself, she plays a crucial role in persuading another young woman to accept the marriage proposal of her son, with consequences both tragic and dramatic.
About the Author
John Burnham Schwartz is the author of the novels Claire Marvel, Bicycle Days, and Reservation Road, which was made into a motion picture based on his screenplay, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly. His books have been translated into more than fifteen languages, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times and The New Yorker. He lives with his wife and their son in Brooklyn, New York.
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