The Commoner
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The Commoner

3.45 of 5 stars 3.45  ·  rating details  ·  3,164 ratings  ·  627 reviews
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 inte...more
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published January 22nd 2008 by Nan A. Talese (first published January 1st 2007)
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Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur GoldenKafka on the Shore by Haruki MurakamiThe Tale of Genji by Murasaki ShikibuThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki MurakamiShōgun by James Clavell
Japanese Fiction
54th out of 238 books — 132 voters
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Good books about Japan
58th out of 122 books — 43 voters


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Community Reviews

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Yulia
why only three stars?

1) i shouldn't have to wait 150 pages to finally care about a book. the book hardly held my attention while haruko was still a commoner. i did feel life from her friend miko and miko's brother kenji, but their presence was too limited to make it plausible that haruko had led a full, free life before entering the royal family. if anything, she seemed rather boring and free of ambition, the je ne sais quoi that others would call dynamism or a spark.

2) i wanted to know why she...more
Sara
Oct 03, 2009 Sara rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people with patience for a slow story with little pay-off
I found this book slow and deliberate and repetitive. I was intrigued by the premise: a first person narrative by the Empress of Japan who was, in her youth after WWII, the first commoner ever to marry into the Imperial family. Unfortunately, this excellent idea for a fascinating plot in a rare and exclusive setting tiptoes along, dwelling on uninteresting details and never really allowing the reader to experience any of the character's emotions through her stilted re-telling.

This is the first b...more
Sumi
I really wished I could have liked this better than I did but the author only made me feel as if I were seeing a thin veneer of the characters. In actual life there was tons of drama going on with the imperial marriages and I didn't feel any of it in the writing. A lack of real knowledge about the inner workings of the imperial household probably was the reason for some of it.

For me, though, the ending was where it all fell apart. It was too improbable and made me briefly flirt with the idea of...more
Carma Chemezova
I probably would have given this 3 1/2 stars if I could. I did enjoy the book. It was an interesting topic and had beautiful language and occassional moments of true feeling, however, I feel like the author was at times trying to hard to be profound- the kind that really just passed me by but then I wonder if it is just me- did I miss something- am I just not smart enough to get it? So maybe for someone else it would be 5 stars who knows. As an example, here is a quote from the book: "And mornin...more
Elaine
OK. so being a Princess in Japan is akin to a life in prison. I got it! the first time. The second time. The nth time. Surely, even in the Japanese royal household, there is more to write about than the Commoner's tears, and even her depression. We learn nothing about this woman, except that she wields a wicked tennis racquet. She loves her Mommy and Daddy.

We know the Prince, breaking with all tradition, wants to marry her, but we never know why. In the long history of the Japanese Empire, neve...more
Jerramy
My royal novel of choice is usually something about the British royal family – so “The Commoner” was a quite a refreshingly regal change for me. And that said - I loved every graceful, delicate word of it. The author’s light touch and poignant tone captures the grace and humility of the Japanese imperial culture until you are immersed within the painful intricacies of palace life. Based on Japan’s real-life royal family, the book takes you on the journey of two generations of Japanese Crown Prin...more
Linda
While generally an interesting story, I did not enjoy this as much as other fiction about the Japanese and Chinese Imperial courts. It seemed about 2/3 of the way through the author lost steam and then rushed through the rest of the Princess' life. If the book had ended on page 285 after a particularly lovely paragraph that sums up then entire point of the book, it would have been more enjoyable for me. 2.5-3 stars.
mwbham
This spare, formal book was a fictional account not too unlike the real Empress Michiko and her daughter-in-law Crown Princess Masako. Both are commoners who married into Japan's Chrysanthemum Throne.

Schwartz, an American man, has Haruko, a Japanese woman, narrate her story of growing up in Tokyo during WWII, marrying the prince, and the difficulties she experiences isolated in the emotionally barren Imperial Court. I enjoyed the detail of the ritualized life of the royal family. The first 100...more
Suzanne
In The Commoner, John Burnham Schwartz takes a real life story about the Crown Prince of Japan marrying a commoner and turns it into a novel. The heroine, Haruko, catches the eye of Japan’s most eligible bachelor, promptly beats him at tennis (twice) and succumbs to the attraction of both the man and the fairy tale.

“At every turn, sometimes subtly and sometimes crudely, the same lesson was driven home: the world would greet me with abject deference not because I deserved or wished it but becaus...more
Mary Soderstrom
Royal Babies: The Commoner While We're Waiting for Kate to Give Birth
There's been a lot about the impending birth of the new third in line to the British throne: the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton was due to give birth July 13, but didn't. Probably a good thing because the British press reports that Prince William was out playing polo on Saturday.

But as the royal watchers wait with bated breath, I've been thinking about an American novel about a royal couple who have a very dif...more
Charles Matthews
They lived happily ever after, all those Disney princesses swept off to the castle by their golden coaches and flying carpets. But real-world princesses are not always so happy. One word: Diana.

The ill-fated princess of Wales was probably on John Burnham Schwartz’s mind as he wrote his terrific new novel, “The Commoner,” but uppermost on it were two other princesses: the one who became the current empress of Japan, the former Michiko Shoda, and her daughter-in-law, the current crown princess, w...more
Book Concierge
3.5***

Set in Japan, beginning shortly before World War II, this novel tells the story of Haruko, a young woman from a very good family. She is coming of age as Tokyo rebuilds after the war, and she gets a taste of the outside world when her best friend writes letters from America, where her father is a diplomat. She is lovely, educated and accomplished, and Haruko attracts the attention of several suitors. The summer after she completes her university studies, Haruko and her family take a summer...more
Sara
This was okay. I almost quit reading it after the first few pages because I thought it was miserably boring despite the fact that it's written about a subject in which I'm extremely interested. I wasn't really in the mood for reading so rather than start a new novel, I continued reading this one at odd moments throughout the day and before I went to sleep. I found myself wondering how it would end because I know more or less the story of the sitting Japanese imperial family and was interested ju...more
Samantha
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Savanna
The Commoner is a decent read, but I thought that some of the characters were a little too archetypal. The Emperor is stereotypically aloof and inattentive to the emotional needs of his family. He fails to notice how his wife manipulates his daughter-in-law. The manipulative Empress is also an all too classic sort of character: the powerful mother-in-law who stifles the hopes and dreams of her daughter-in-law out of bitterness because someone stifled her hopes and dreams.

I was also frustrated b...more
Elizabeth
The Commoner tells the story of the first non aristocratic Japanese commoner to marry a Crown Prince of Japan. A young woman who has grown up in what would be considered moderate luxury and moderate freedom, with a good education, and loving parents connects with the Crown Prince through playing tennis matches with him, and then occasionally meeting with him in other social situations. At the onset her parents are adverse to the match because they believe their daughter will be thrust into a imp...more
Connie
The Crown Prince of Japan married Haruko, the first commoner to become part of the Japanese Imperial family in 1959. Haruko entered a world of ceremony and tradition, isolated from the rest of the world. The Empress, her husband's mother, treated her with contempt and complained about her constantly. From the day she married the Prince, her duty was to bring a son into the world as an heir to the throne, and her beloved Yasu was born. It was a lonely life for Haruko with no friends and no privac...more
Bobbi
Haruko was born in Toyko in 1934. She is from a financially secure family which socializes with the Japanese upper class. Haruko has a good education, nice clothes and her father makes sure she does not want for anything.

She becomes a good tennis player and eventually winds up in a tournament playing against the Crown Prince of Japan. He falls in love with her and asks for her hand. Her parents know what Haruko will go through as a Crown Princess and the cloistered existence she'll be forced to...more
Michelle
I was excited to read a book based in Japan because I don't get around to doing that much, unfortunately. The book is a work of fiction, but is very clearly based on the life of Empress Michiko and later in the book, Crown Princess Masako. The beginning jumped around, giving you bits and pieces of Haruko's childhood (that's the one that's supposed to be like the empress). It was a bit too choppy for my liking. When we finally get into Haruko's twenties, when she's playing tennis and meets the pr...more
Michelle
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Heatherfife
I have very mixed feelings about this book. The beginning is a great historical account of what it was like to live in Tokyo in WWII. Since I live in Tokyo, it was intriguing, moved quickly and was very interesting. The rest of the story wasn't quite as interesting or well-written. I have mixed feelings about the author himself. First of all, it was written from a Japanese woman's perspective, by an American man. I was skeptical about the emotional dryness of the book and wondered about the auth...more
Suzanne
John Burnham Schwartz tends to write with a degree of formality, which works well in this story of a Japanese woman from a good family who becomes the first commoner to marry into Japan's royal family.

The bare bones of the story will strike those who live in Japan as familiar - the crown prince and his bride (in this story, Haruko) meet on a tennis court in Karuizawa. Under the constant scrutiny of the court, Haruko becomes so stressed that she loses her voice for several months. Finally, she c...more
Lisa
This book read in stops and starts. Sometimes the details bordered on obsessive, while other times the narrator glossed over and skipped ahead. The tone was consistent through the entire book, but it was mostly a veneer; while depth of character was hinted at, it was never actually realized. The conversational structure didn't feel like formal Japanese, but instead read how someone assumed formal Japanese in that era would have sounded. It was bland, honestly, and about a quarter of the way thro...more
Titti
Ez most nagyon tetszett. Japán mindig érdekes téma, szívesem olvasok gésákról sógunokról, mindenféléről, de ez a történet kimagaslik érdekességi faktorban.
Olyan a könyv mintha a japán császárné memoárja lenne, persze nem az, de az író jól vegyíti a tényeket a kitalációval, és tényleg olyan érzésem volt, hogy sikerült betekinteni a Japán Császárok titkos, elzárt világába.
Néhol olyan szívszorító volt, hogy 2 kezemmel akartam kimenteni Harukot helyzetéből, vagy elsöpörni az eszement hagyományokat...more
Jerri Tubbs
Based on a true story of the Royal Imperial Dynasty of Japan from the 1950's forward. You get a glimpse at what the closed life of a young Empress who married "UP" was like. It breaks your heart over and over. It is a little slow moving, but the stories characters' keep you turning the page. Haruko, a common Japanese girl, is chosen by the young Emperor to become his bride...see what that really means and how it separates her from her mother and father and herself. If you like sad stories based...more
Corine
I loved this slow, uneventful, richly layered novel. The self-restrain of the protagonists who are trapped into a gilded, lonely life they did not choose but yet devote themselves to out of a sense of responsibility and honor is hard to watch. There is never a false note and I felt transported into that world. It sure made me rethink my childhood dream of becoming a princess when I grew up!
Merredith
This is a historical fiction book. It begins right before world war two, when the main character was a little girl, and i found the first part of the book really interesting. I didn't learn a whole lot about WW2 in school, but what i did learn was, of course, all from an american point of view. this is set in japan who were, of course, our enemies, but we don't usually get to hear from our enemies as people. reading about the destruction was sad yet interesting. and then it goes downhill from th...more
Sherry
I was mesmerized by The Commoner. I felt the visceral claustrophobic isolation that must be reality for the exalted (and scrutinized) Empress of Japan who started out being a regular girl. Schwartz did a fine job of making the reader experience the deprivation and sadness that opulence and privilege and duty demanded of his subject. It’s not necessarily good to be the queen.
Kaye
Listened to this on "audio" and quite enjoyed it. More than loosely based on truth this novel gave insights in the burden of being a "royal." After reading it I wanted to research a bit more about this "commoner" and her husband who were the first to break with Japanese royal traditions.
Mary
The beginning where we see her as a young girl was slow moving but necessary to understand her struggles as a princess and then as the empress. This book got me intrigued about the real royal family of Japan. It's amazing that this was all in the 20th century.
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John Burnham Schwartz grew up in New York City. At Harvard College, he majored in Japanese studies, and upon graduation accepted a position with a prominent Wall Street investment bank, before finally turning the position down after selling his first novel. Schwartz has taught fiction writing at Harvard, The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and Sarah Lawrence College, and he is the literary d...more
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“Men had suddenly become a scarce commodity, if not quite as sought after as rice.” 4 likes
“Along the wide curving moat surrounding the palace, rows of cherry trees announced the end of their seasonal beauty. Some of the trees were weeping: blossoms in white and palest pink, ponderous with decreptitude, eddying on the brown water, stirred by the paddling of ducks.” 3 likes
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