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The Commoner: A Novel

A book by John Burnham Schwartz

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A Book to Read While Waiting for Kate's Baby to Be Born?

  • Jul 16, 2013
Rating:
+3
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 difficult time producing an heir. The book is The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz and the throne in question is the Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan. It's not a novel I would have picked to read, but it was on the list for a book group I began leading last year: the previous leader had chosen it.

Not that it was hard going. Told from the point of view of a young woman of good but not noble family who falls in love witht the Jap
anese crown prince, the novel is arresting and well-paced. Schwartz seems to have done his homework assiduously:a little rummaging around on the Net reveals just how closely the story follows what happened to the current Empress Michiko.

Schwartz gives us a great deal about Japanese royal politics as well as the Emperor's changing role since the end of World War II. But the heart of the story is struggle of the narrator to find a place in the court and--most importantly--to conceive an heir. When she does and the baby is in effect taken away from her to be raised by courtiers, I imagine many readers will shed a tear or two.

The novel has a certain fairy tale quality--after all, the commoner is seen from afar by the Crown Prince who persues her and wisks her away to a life in a castle. But the real unbelievable episode comes at the end. That is when the narrator helps her daugher-in-law, another commoner, escape the oppression of royalty. Not very likely that would happen, it seems to me.

I haven't been able to find out if the book has been translated into Japanese, but I doubt it has. Imagine what hackles would rise among the British Royal Family's friends if a Japanese writer wrote a novel about Princess Diana and her unhappy life.

Or about Kate Middleton, who seems to be doing much better than her husband's mother did.

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July 17, 2013
Interesting perspectives!
 
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review by . July 16, 2013
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 …
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Ranked #92
Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her new collection of short stories, Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography, will be published by Oberon Press in November, … more
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Starred Review. Schwartz bases his finely wrought fourth novel on the life of Empress Michiko of Japan, the first commoner to marry into the Japanese imperial family. Haruko Tsuneyasu grows up in postwar rural Japan and studies at Sacred Heart University, where she excels—particularly and fatefully—at tennis, which provides her entrée to the crown prince, whom she handily beats in an exhibition match. After more meetings on and off the court, the prince asks Haruko to marry him. Persuaded by their mutual attraction and by assurances that the break with tradition will usher in a modern era, Haruko ultimately agrees, against her father's wishes, to become the first commoner turned royal. But, as her father had feared, her freedom and ambition suffer under the stifling rituals of court life. Eventually, Haruko succumbs to the inescapable judgment of the empress and her entourage, falling mute after the birth of her son, Yasuhito. Though the narrative loses some of its life after Haruko marries—perhaps mirroring Haruko's experience within the palace walls—urgency returns after Haruko chooses a wife for Yasuhito; the marriage tests Haruko's dedication to the crown. Schwartz (Reservation Road) pulls off a grand feat in giving readers a moving dramatization of a cloistered world.
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ISBN-10: 0385515715
ISBN-13: 978-0385515719
Author: John Burnham Schwartz
Publisher: Nan A. Talese

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