four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
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0

A-The CommonerIn the late 1950s, Haruko Endo, the only child of a wealthy saki merchant, catches the eye of the crown prince at a tennis tournament. After a brief courtship, she accepts the prince’s proposal of marriage and becomes the first commoner to marry into the 2,000-year-old Japanese monarchy. Reviled for her common birth by courtiers and treated with cruelty and contempt by her mother-in-law, the empress, Haruko tries to adjust to life in the imperial palace despite its endless rituals and stultifying restrictions. Thirty years later, she is empress herself, and when her son, the crown prince, confesses his love for another commoner, Haruko faces a terrible choice.
Nan A. Talese. 368 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0385515715

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Readers should be delighted. Schwartz has written a mesmerizing novel full of tenderness and compassion, one that convincingly invests the Japanese empress’s voice with all the nuance it demands." Kunio Francis Tanabe

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Since Schwartz hues closely to the few facts known about the Empress Michiko, who met her husband on a tennis court and is rumored to have lost her voice for months during the 1960s, readers may have an uncomfortable feeling of eavesdropping where they clearly aren’t wanted. … The trend of mixing history with fiction can make for fascinating, intellectually rich reading, and Schwartz’s delicately rendered novel is nowhere near Kitty Kelley or Andrew Morton territory." Yvonne Zipp

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"An American taking on a fictional memoir about a living Japanese empress is a gutsy move, but Schwartz makes it work. … While the external details of life in the palace remain stunning, it’s Schwartz’s grasp of [Haruko’s] internal struggle that resonates after the last page is turned." Robin Vidimos

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Schwartz handles the physical details effortlessly, but his silken style lends itself best to the creation of internal life from whole cloth. You can sternly remind yourself every few pages that this is fiction, or you can relax and enjoy the fantasy that you are privy to two of the most private public lives in the world." Janice P. Nimura

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"No question, Schwartz is a masterful novelist, especially adept at first-person narration. At no time do we doubt we are hearing Haruko’s daring, intelligent voice, analytical and sure." Mary-Liz Shaw

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"His book will inevitably be compared with Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (1997), but Mr. Schwartz’s work is more delicate and graceful. Haruko’s voice is—at least to this American reader—strangely persuasive, and her world view consistent with that of someone with her upbringing." Brooke Allen

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Like the ornate trappings of the palace, sometimes the imagery is too rich, and the ending stretches credulity. But, even so, Schwartz opens a gilded window into a seldom-seen world and the traditions that have sustained a monarchy through centuries, only to threaten the young lives needed to carry it into the future." Susan Kelly

Critical Summary

John Burnham Schwartz bases his fourth novel on the Empress Michiko and Crown Princess Masako of Japan. Though Japanese imperial life remains shrouded in mystery, Schwartz teases out the details through extensive research. Much to the astonishment and pleasure of the critics, he gives Haruko an authentic and completely convincing voice. While his vivid depictions of postwar Japan are stunning, it is Haruko’s vibrant inner life that propels the narrative and resounds with readers. Though not as intense as Reservation Road (1998), Schwartz’s unflinching portrayal of the aftermath of a child’s death, and though slightly marred by an implausible ending, The Commoner will captivate readers by providing a haunting look into the 2,000 years of secrets surrounding the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Cited by the Critics

Memoirs of a Geisha | Arthur Golden (1997): This lush, vibrant fairy tale about a young girl sold into servitude who rises to become the most famous geisha of pre-WWII Japan opens a window into the hidden, misunderstood world of Tokyo’s pleasure district.