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.)
"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.
Reading Group Guide
is a poignant tale of formidable tradition, unspoken sacrifice, and invincible courage. When Haruko is chosen to become the Crown Princes consort, her family reluctantly allows the marriage. What follows for their daughter is an austere life of ritual and duty carried out in painful isolation. As a commoner, she withstands constant scrutiny by the royal family, in time giving birth to a much–anticipated male heir. Years later, when her son chooses an accomplished young woman to be his bride, Haruko emerges from her seclusion to convince the brilliant Keiko to acquiesce. As she watches Keiko endure the same ordeal she herself survived, Haruko must come to terms with hushed questions of loyalty, commitment, and freedom. When she urges her daughter–in–law to take her child and flee, Haruko at last gives her own earth-bound spirit wings. A novel of bondage and extraordinary liberation, The Commoner
spans decades of Japanese history, detailing the private suffering of women who have joined the imperial family. With unflinching candor, John Burnham Schwartz lends his voice to the generations of women who have silently sacrificed their lives inside the palace walls.
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of John Burnham Schwartzs The Commoner. We hope they will enrich your experience of this mesmerizing novel. To find other great books for reading groups, visit http://www.randomhouse.com/doubleday/readers/.
1. Because Haruko is a commoner, not a peeress, the Crown Prince chooses to break with tradition in selecting her to be his bride. Why does Harukos father tell Dr. Watanabe that Haruko would be a “humiliation to Japan”? What is Dr. Watanabes response? How is this break with tradition later echoed in the marriage of Harukos own son?
2. Before her wedding, Haruko stares at her own face in a mirror that once belonged to her grandmother. When she light–heartedly asks her father if he will be happy when she is gone, he replies with great seriousness. Later, when Haruko returns to her parents home for a visit, Harukos father excuses himself from the table. Haruko finds him staring at the mirror she has left behind. Why does Haruko state, “We both understood that an evening like this was impossible and would never happen again”? What is the significance of the mirror Haruko chose not to include in her trousseau?
3. As Haruko prepares for her wedding, she observes, “At every turn, sometimes subtly and sometimes crudely, the same lesson was driven home: the world would greet me with abject deference not because I deserved it or wished it but because of my station, which in all things would stand above me, and indeed would outlast me.” What is Harukos attitude toward assuming her position in the royal family? Why do her parents ultimately urge her to accept her new life with courage?
4. How does Haruko experience the wedding ceremony inside the Kashikodokoro? How does she feel as she joins the Crown Prince in the shrine? Why does Haruko believe the crows on the roof of the shrine mock “the foolishness of men”?
5. What causes Harukos “breakdown”? Why is Yasu kept from her during this time? How does Harukos visit at her parents home affect her?
6. When Yasu first proposes marriage to the accomplished Keiko Mori, she refuses him. Haruko meets with Keiko and tells her that if Keiko marries Yasu, Haruko will do everything she can to protect her within the royal family. Haruko relates, “Riding home alone from our secret meeting late that afternoon, some gathering sense of responsibility for this young womans future happiness clung to me; and it felt not like triumph, but already, somehow, like remorse.” Describe Harukos inner conflict over Keikos decision. Feeling as she does about her own life, why do you suppose Haruko is willing to persuade Keiko to accept Yasus proposal?
7. How does Mikos visit affect Haruko? Why does Miko confess that after seeing Harukos photograph in a magazine years ago, Miko had been a coward? Why does Haruko say, “Talking with you now is like remembering how to eat”?
8. As they watch their sons wedding ceremony on television from their residence, how do Shiges and Harukos reactions differ? How does Haruko feel about her husbands indifference? Do you believe she truly loves him?
9. After the birth of her daughter, Keiko takes refuge in Karauizawa. When Yasu undertakes a trip to Europe without her, the royal family claims Keiko is suffering from an “adjustment disorder.” How does Keiko respond when Haruko visits her at Karauizawa and tells her, “You must take Reiko away from here and never come back.” Do you believe this is good advice? After convincing Keiko to marry Yasu in the first place, why is Haruko now suggesting Keiko flee? What does this tell you about Harukos state of mind?
10. In the closing pages, Harukos driver Okubo hands her an envelope marked with two cranes in flight. What does Haruko learn about where her daughter–in–law and granddaughter have gone? How does she feel about their disappearance? Describe the significance of this event for Haruko. To what degree does the books ending resolve Harukos own internal conflict?