Book Club: The Commoner

The Commoner Review - John Burnham Schwartz - Book Review

This month, the group follows John Burnham Schwartz into the secret world of Japanese royalty in The Commoner, and discovers that life as an imperial princess is no fairy tale. Worth the $14.95? Read on . . .

THE PLOT: At first, Haruko Endo's rise to the Japanese throne in the 1950s has all the makings of a magical love story: The daughter of a wealthy businessman, Haruko beats the crown prince in a game of tennis. He falls in love with her, forgoes tradition, and marries the 24-year-old commoner. For the rest of the novel, loosely based on the true story of the Empress Michiko, author John Burnham Schwartz (Reservation Road) imagines a hard life for the princess as she trades her desires for ancient traditions and ultimately comes to terms with her empty life.

YAEL (ASSOCIATE EDITOR): I thought this book was beautifully written, but the story was so frickin' boring. I kept waiting for something to happen, and then when something did - like when Haruko's about to get married or when she goes mute during her nervous breakdown - the moment was so subtle and "quietly written," it seemed dull and inconsequential.

LAUREN (ARTICLES EDITOR): See, I thought it was a great story. I know the plot points seemed sort of mundane - she speaks out of turn to her in-laws; she walks ahead of her husband - but they shed light on how controlled her life was.

ABIGAIL (DEPUTY EDITOR): At first I was skeptical about this book - a white American dude is going to tell me how a young woman in 1950s Japan was feeling? But the story was so beautifully told that in the end, I liked it. There were some really lyrical passages, like when Haruko describes her friend: "If I was the routine blue sky, Miko was the twilight whose darkening colors never appeared in the same shade twice."

SHYEMA (ASSOCIATE RESEARCH EDITOR): But you have to admit the character development was pretty thin. I didn't feel attached to any of them, and I didn't think the love story between Haruko and the prince was convincing enough for me to understand why she agreed to marry into the royal family.

YAEL: I totally agree. They played tennis together, did some flirting, had a phone call or two, but I didn't get that she was so in love that she would be willing to give up everything for him. It's one thing if she had been delusional going in or had some princess fantasy - or even if she were forced into it. But from the start, she wasn't at all excited about becoming royalty. In fact, she foresaw the miserable life that was coming before she even married the guy.

LAUREN: I thought the theme of freedom versus confinement was fascinating. Haruko had the most spectacular wealth in the world, and yet she was a prisoner who took hell for the way she talked, the way she walked . . . She wasn't allowed to see her parents or raise her own kid. Throughout the book, I kept thinking, You're the princess! Put them all in their place! And she never did. She truly was powerless. It made me grateful for my small, beat-up apartment where I can do anything I want.

ABIGAIL: The book definitely gave you a sense of that deeply ingrained deference in Japan everyone's always talking about.

SHYEMA: I learned a few things about Japanese ceremony and tradition. But that's about all I really took away from it.

YAEL: That, and the fact that no woman should ever want to be a princess.



NEXT MONTH: Lush Life by Richard Price (Picador).