THE COMMONER by John Burnham Schwartz


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Schwartz (Claire Marvel, 2001, etc.) taps into the increasingly popular trend of blurring the boundary between fiction and nonfiction with this imagining of the lives of the current Empress and Crown Princess of Japan, both alive but seldom seen or heard from in public.

Although the names of the Empress and Crown Princess have been changed, Schwartz holds close to the basic facts of their lives for most of his novel. Haruko is the beloved only child of a wealthy sake manufacturer, a serious student of art. She meets the Crown Prince while playing tennis, winning the doubles match against him and his heart almost simultaneously. Soon the Crown Prince, through his primary advisor/aide Dr. Watanabe, approaches the family with a marriage proposal. At first Haruko’s parents resist, sending her away to Europe, but they soften under Watanabe’s pressure while the Crown Prince woos Haruko in telephone conversations. Haruko, the first commoner to marry into the royal family, must relinquish her past, including her family, upon her marriage. The empress turns out to be the royal mother-in-law from hell and Haruko finds herself a prisoner of the royal protocol. Shortly after her son’s birth, she has a nervous breakdown. Although she eventually recovers, she never truly enjoys her life as Crown Princess and then Empress. Years later, Haruko’s son falls in love with another commoner, Harvard-educated Keiko, who has already begun a promising diplomatic career. Haruko empathizes with the young woman even as she manipulates her into marrying the prince. But when the strains of the Imperial Court endanger Keiko’s mental health, Haruko helps her escape. The details of life for upper-class Japanese during and after World War II are fascinating, as are the rituals of the Imperial court, 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.

Pub Date: Jan. 22nd, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-385-51571-9
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2007


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