The Commoner: Book summary and reviews of The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz

The Commoner

A Novel

By John Burnham Schwartz

The Commoner
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  • Published in USA  Jan 2008,
    368 pages.

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Book Summary

Told in the voice of Haruko, meticulously researched and superbly imagined, The Commoner is the mesmerizing, moving, and surprising story of a brutally rarefied 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.

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.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Schwartz pulls of a grand feat in giving readers a moving dramatization of a cloistered world." - Publishers Weekly.

"A unique literary adventure, intimate, exotic; wonderfully imagined and achieved. The narrative impels the reader from first to last immersing us in its flow of ancient acceptances and new demands. Splendid." - Shirley Hazzard, author of The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire.

"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." - Kirkus Reviews.

"An artful meditation on the limits of love and duty. This novel will thrill readers who crave literary romance." - People.

"Fans of Memoirs of a Geisha … will savor [The Commoner]…. The delicate, hairline fractures in Haruko's story are all the more heartbreaking for being so restrained." - New York Daily News.

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Dorothy T.
Uncommon novel
This author's writing style is gorgeous, although I admit I had to re-read a few passages to be sure I understood them. The setting--the Japanese Imperial court and its traditions and rituals--give the novel an exotic ambiance, but also drives the story. How can this centuries-old way of life continue to survive in our modern world? Haruko, the central character, is so well-drawn that her joys and heartaches affected me. I am looking forward to our book club discussion--there is much to delve into here.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Deborah
The Commoner
As an avid reader with a love for novels set in the orient I waited impatiently for The Commoner to arrive. I was not disappointed and could not put the book down. A reader will find nothing ordinary in Schwartz's writing. The author captivates the reader with detailed descriptions and smooth prose so that one feels like they are eavesdropping on the characters. This is a must read for all who appreciate excellent writing and a good story. I found myself caught between my desire to keep reading and dreading the novels end. I am happily looking forward to reading Schwartz's earlier novels

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by John
Clash of old and new traditions
John Burnham Schwartz's latest book, The Commoner, is an interesting portrayal of the royal house of Japan. Haruko, the fictional Empress of Japan, is the commoner of the title. She gives up her voice - literally and figuratively - by agreeing to marry the Crown Prince. The novel explores her struggle to hold on to her roots against her duties and difficult mother-in-law. Schwartz's writing is sprinkled with beautiful imagery often associated with Japan - cherry blossoms, cranes, and the phoenix, but the use of this imagery cannot save the forced prose. The story - like an oriental Princess Diana story - tries to prevent Haruko has a marytered hero, but in the end - even when she helps her daughter-in-law deal with Imperial life - she comes more as coward forced into a moral decision that leaves her speechless. Haruko even loses her ability to speak, but once it is regained, she does not say anything of interest. The reader is left to infer to much about her character. In the end, this reader was generally to bored to infer.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Vicki
The Commoner
Finally, an Asian historical fiction as good as Memoirs of a Geisha. Great read, The characters were vivid, the book well written and I was sorry to see it end. A fascinating novel.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Brenda
Interesting and eye-opening!
The Commoner is an excellent and unique portrayal of a 'common' woman' shaped by the surroundings of the inner circle of court life in Japan and the intense struggles she embraces. As the story develops, the author clearly captures the stark double standard that exists following WW2 between the role of women in the Imperial family and the evolving role of women in Japanese society. I love reading books about other times and cultures... and the ending was so fitting!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Ruth
Open your mind and heart to a “common” Japanese woman through reading an excellent story as told by a very good story teller.
The Commoner is a novel that captivated me from the title page to the last (read with mild regret), satisfying page of the book. It offered intimate details of the country of Japan, the totally believable characters, and the Imperial Court and it’s ceremony and traditions. John Burnham Schwartz ascended to my list of authors who tell a truly great story and evoke emotion and imagery that brought me to live with and among his wonderfully realized characters. Highly recommended for book clubs, people interested in the far east and post W.W.II history, and people who enjoy reading about relationships and how important they are in some people’s lives.

...10 more reader reviews

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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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