Book Review: The Commoner

The Commoner: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries)

Every day, without fail, I entered a room too quickly, spoke too often or too loudly, waved my hands in a coarse fashion, scratched an itch, offered an opinion, bowed to an angle of less than sixty degrees before my parents-in-law and so forth. p. 179

I was, at first, under the illusion that my mistakes would be viewed as temporary surface nicks and scratches easily healed. But as the weeks passed and the harsh judgments poured in-always in private, in the coded language of feminine Court disapproval that was to be my new mother tongue-I was gradually disabused of my naivete and made to understand that in a world constituted entirely of surface, all flaws run deep. p. 180

This hauntingly sad and beautiful book by John Burnham Schwartz tells a fictionalized version of the real Empress of Japan’s life.  Haruko (the fictional character) is the daughter of a wealthy Japanese businessman who meets the Crown Prince playing tennis and becomes the first commoner to marry into the Imperial Family. Her life is somewhat symbolic of the country’s struggles to become more modern after World War II while still fiercely holding onto ancient tradition. Japan’s Imperial Family does not have the freedom of other royal families around the world and Haurko’s life after marriage is tragic in its loss of freedom and her loss of self. At one point she suffers a complete loss of voice for over 6 months. The first part of the book details Haruko’s life as a child and young woman before her marriage, the middle details her marriage up to having her first child and the end takes place many years later when she is now Empress of Japan. Her son, the current Crown Prince, is in love with Keiko, an accomplished woman who is also a commoner. Haruko encourages the marriage because she loves her son, even though she knows that it will be devastating for Keiko herself.

I had somewhat mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s very beautiful. It’s quite a sad book at the same time but no less beautiful for that. It’s also fascinating to read about the very cloistered environment of Imperial Japan. Schwartz has obviously done meticulous research and it pays off in the details. From that standpoint, I very much enjoyed the book.

On the other hand, I was a bit uncomfortable knowing that the people this fictional  book is about are very much real. Schwartz gives the required disclaimer at the beginning about how the book is pure fiction, etc. However, a quick Internet search reveals that most of the main facts are taken straight from the very real life of the current Empress Michiko of Japan and Crown Princess Masako. In many ways this makes the book more compelling. For example, I would have dismissed the “loss of voice” episode as symbolic and a little bit over the top. But in fact the current Empress did indeed suffer a months long loss of voice.  In other ways this just made me uncomfortable. I enjoy historical fiction but there is something different about reading about the emotions and inner thoughts of Lady Jane Grey and reading about the emotions and inner thoughts of a thinly veiled fictionalized versions of women who could have read the book themselves. I can only think that this book could have made their already difficult lives that much worse. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed away from reading American Wife even though I enjoyed Prep by the same author. Still, I have to admit that I quite enjoyed The Queen which is virtually the same thing. Maybe the difference there is that I didn’t feel sorry for Queen Elizabeth.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Commoner

  1. Pingback: The Social Network « Supratentorial

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