John Burnham Schwartz

"The Commoner"

(Reviewed by Mike Frechette MAR 30, 2009)

“As though, in making this honored pilgrimage, I had already been reduced, becoming no more substantial than a silken thread spun by unknown hands and soon to be woven into a pattern in some larger tapestry not of my conception.”

The secretive drama of the Japanese Imperial Family lends itself well to speculation, so it should not surprise those familiar with the saga that a best-selling author recently penned a novel on the subject. Using fictional character names, John Burnham Schwartz’s newest publication, The Commoner, takes as its subject Japan’s imperial story as it has unfolded since the end of World War II. Haruko, the daughter of a simple businessman and also our first-person narrator, enjoys an ordinary, mostly carefree childhood. In 1950, however, her father takes a house for the family in Karuizawa, where Haruko’s life changes forever when she attracts the attention of Crown Prince Shige after beating him in a tennis match. An unprecedented marriage, a nervous breakdown, depression – these events have defined the imperial family in the last half of the twentieth century, and Schwartz treats them with warm sincerity and light touches of humor in this latest literary project.

When the Crown Prince proposes to Haruko, she does not fully comprehend the significance and scale of his request. As she writes, “I was just beginning then to see it, to feel the magnitude. But I had no true idea.” Her father has a clear idea, though, and earnestly discourages the match given Haruko’s status as a mere commoner. Nevertheless, the strong-willed girl accepts the proposal, a decision she later realizes as her “last act of freedom…the hidden cost of love.” Once inside the palace walls, she struggles to adapt to the ways of court life, enduring the censure of the Empress who believes the marriage to be a violation of the natural order. Later when Haruko gives birth to a son, she bridles at a tradition that severely limits her motherly role, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown that renders her mute. She recovers, but years later when her own son Yasu wants to marry a commoner, Haruko must decide between helping her son achieve his desire or protecting a girl like herself from a life of depression and imprisonment.

Though dramatic and fast-paced in sections, Schwartz also takes time in the first part of the novel to have Haruko describe her childhood as well as flesh out some tender moments with her father. In one of their last conversations before Haruko is married, her father explains to her how drastically their relationship will change, shaking “his head with a violent sadness” as Haruko panics at his words. Schwartz demonstrates his writerly skill in this scene and creates palpable emotion, leaving the reader with the same anxiety and sad emptiness as Haruko and her father. At the same time, the novel has its more lighthearted instances, with Haruko poking fun at the contrived gravity of imperial life and adding levity to the storytelling. In relating the date of her marital ceremony to the reader, she writes, “an auspicious day, it was declared; or, at any rate, the only day approved by the Imperial Household Agency.” Such humor is subtle and a bit sarcastic but also a necessary defense mechanism for our storyteller who suffers a nervous breakdown at the hands of such serious traditions.

Many readers might initially think that Haruko’s trouble stems from the conflict between duty and freedom, the public and private life, but Schwartz ascribes a more complex cause to her suffering. A symbol rather than a person, Haruko’s value rests not in her personhood but in what she represents, her very self diminished by an all-consuming social role. She writes, “the world would greet me with abject deference not because I deserved or wished it but because of my station, which in all things would stand above me, and indeed would outlast me.” Haruko revisits this theme during her pregnancy with the future Crown Prince, succinctly claiming that “as a symbol as well as a body, I grew ever larger.” Schwartz should be praised for complicating a theme that could have easily been left prosaic. The only shortcoming, in this reviewer’s judgment, is that the complexity does not go far enough for a character whose life changes so quickly and uniquely.

Despite this criticism, Schwartz offers his readers an engaging fictional account of Japan’s royal family. He has clearly done his research, and as early reviews noted, there is a marked similarity to Arthur Golden’s now famous Memoirs of a Geisha, which looms large in the popular imagination. With two female protagonists narrating in memoir fashion their radical change in fortune, critics were bound to draw comparisons. And such an association in the public mind can be the only explanation for the odd cover choice of The Commoner’s new paperback edition depicting a geisha, since geisha do not even appear in the story. Cover aside, though, Schwartz’s book does not deserve to be overshadowed in the wake of Golden’s bestseller. Like Memoirs, The Commoner fascinates readers with a character who struggles to transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar, the common to the uncommon.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 75 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Commoner at Random House

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About the Author:

John Burnham SchwartzJohn Burnham Schwartz graduated from Manhattan Country School and Choate Rosemary Hall.

His writing has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, and Vogue.

He lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn, New York. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014