Haruko marries a prince and becomes a princess. Such are the fanciful dreams of young American girls, as they watch the lives of Disney’s most well-known fictional heroines. They know, too, that most of these princesses-by-marriage become so almost against their humble will, as if the pretty dresses and privileged lifestyle can only be rightfully placed upon those who don’t fight for such a crown. In John Burnham Schwartz’s novel, THE COMMONER, Haruko is no exception.
Born in Japan to a well-off but common family, Haruko attends private school and a prestigious college, and she defiantly rejects the arranged proposals of a handful of Japanese men. Playfully called “Gazelle” by her high school track friend, she remains active throughout her young adult life by playing tennis as a semi-professional hobby. Her life changes when the Crown Prince is set to be her opponent. Against her parents’ wishes, and most likely the entire country’s, she wins the match. This graceful victory makes her an increasingly intriguing woman in the eyes of the Crown Prince, and after many attempts have been made on his behalf, he wins her hand not on the tennis courts but in marriage.
Contrary to the reader’s anticipation, this is not a beautiful beginning to a beautiful life. Haruko is the first non-royal woman to enter into the bloodline, and though the country is in an era of progression, her mother-in-law, the Empress of Japan, is not. Haruko is given one job to do --- to give birth to a son. Aside from this act, which itself is surrounded by ritual that is out of Haruko’s hands, she is to be merely a silent idol for her people. After a nervous breakdown, she becomes reconciled to the fact that she can never be what she was before entering the monarchy, and her one consolation is in providing happiness to her husband and children, who she loves dearly. As the next generation comes of age, Haruko’s dual feelings of unhappiness and duty conflict when her son courts another commoner. Haruko wants her son to be happy, but she does not want to see this outspoken woman follow in her laden footsteps to be silenced against her will.
While the specifics in THE COMMONER are entirely made up, Schwartz based his story off of scant details of the real Crown Princesses of the 20th century. His pursuit of a degree in East Asian Studies resulted in living abroad in Tokyo, and he recently returned there to interview key people for his book, among them the Grand Chamberlain to the Emperor Akihito. His novel is not a critique of Japanese culture; instead, it is a critique of any monarchy, and any such institution that silences and distances its members. Schwartz gives this critique through the lively Haruko, who is slowly recreated into a mournful prisoner with each turn of the page. This recreation is not written through grand explosions of feeling and remorse but through the subtle intricacies of each quiet word.
Schwartz uses the brevity of each chapter to make the reader turn the page for just one more. The jacket, the paper and even the font are beautiful; it is like holding a tragedy under the guise of serenity, with the only clue being the rain that falls from the dark sky on the otherwise enchanting scene on the cover. The author effortlessly speaks through the eyes of a female born and raised on foreign soil. He enters her mind and her heart, and he shares them with us most intimately. And like any story of oppression, the reader closes the book with a mixture of satisfaction and sympathy.
Reviewed by Shannon Luders-Manuel on December 28, 2010
- Publication Date: January 22, 2008
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Nan A. Talese
- ISBN-10: 0385515715
- ISBN-13: 9780385515719