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The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz
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Dec 17, 09


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, who was born Masako Owada. In the novel, which is transparently based on their lives, the former is named Haruko Endo, the latter Keiko Mori.

Like the real Empress Michiko, Haruko is the daughter of a wealthy businessman. An intelligent, pretty, athletic young woman, educated at Sacred Heart University, she is invited to play tennis with the crown prince. People are shocked when she doesn’t let him win. They are more shocked when he falls in love with her and proposes marriage. Haruko has misgivings: She would have to leave her friends and family behind forever. She would give up any hope of independence. She would be forced into a regimented, ritualistic life at a time when Japanese women – the marriage takes place in 1959 – are beginning to discover their freedoms.

But she accepts his proposal, and becomes the first commoner to marry into the imperial line. Her one and only task is to produce an heir, which she does. She loves the boy, Yasuhito, but as Mrs. Oshima, her chief lady-in-waiting (and spy for the empress), icily reminds her, “He may be yours, but he does not belong to you.” And as the full knowledge of the hopeless emptiness of her life bears down on her, Haruko sinks into a clinical depression that robs her of speech.

Haruko recovers, only to see her own story recapitulated when Yasuhito grows up and falls in love with Keiko, a brilliantly accomplished woman with a promising career as a diplomat. Keiko has known more of the world than Haruko was privileged to know, and she turns down Yasuhito’s proposal. But Haruko herself persuades Keiko to accept – and then endures the pain of guilt when Keiko’s fate proves even more crushing than her own. For Keiko is unable to produce an heir. And she, too, falls into depression and withdraws from public view.

The secrets of the Japanese royal family are fiercely guarded, and Mr. Schwartz has based his novel on what little has leaked out from the imperial palace: that the Empress Michiko did in fact go mute for a while when she was crown princess, and that Crown Princess Masako has disappeared from sight after giving birth to a girl – reportedly conceived in vitro. But this is no tawdry, tattling roman à clef. It’s a subtle, finely wrought fiction that evokes Jane Austen.

The novel’s milieu, like that of Austen’s novels, is an island of custom and ritual in the middle of a world in change; after all, Austen’s country houses and their decorum-conscious residents existed in the eye of a hurricane: the Napoleonic wars. It’s the young – attracted to change, subjected to tradition – who must wager a choice between the burden of the past and the temptation of the future.

Some of the characters in “The Commoner” would have been at home in the Jane Austen world. The vaguely ineffective Emperor, modeled on the impotent postwar Hirohito, evokes the passive-aggressive fathers in her novels, such as Mr. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse. Even some of the dialogue in “The Commoner” could have come, with only minor changes, from an Austen novel, such as this exchange between Haruko and the Empress:

“ ‘That must of course be right,’ I said. ‘But it’s rather confusing how nearly every time one picks up a newspaper of late one finds oneself reading the opinion that Japan has entered the age of progress and technology and must not, cannot, turn back. I wonder what one is to make of such statements.’

“ ‘You should consider reading less,’ my mother-in-law said.”

Mr. Schwartz has followed up his highly praised novel “Reservation Road” with a tour de force; the creation of a wholly convincing Japanese heroine by a male American writer reflects the triumph of imagination over experience. But it’s more than that, for the stories of Haruko and Keiko embody an essential and perdurable tragedy: the stifling of a human being’s potential.

They don’t live happily ever after. Maybe they never did.
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