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THE COMMONER
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The Commoner
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John Burnham Schwartz, acclaimed author of the brilliant Reservation Road, now gives us an imaginative tour de force inspired by the dramatic real-life stories of the reigning empress and crown princess of Japan.

The novel's narrator is Haruko, Empress of Japan. In 1959, at the age of twenty-four, she marries the Crown Prince, becoming the first non-aristocratic woman to enter the longest-running, most hermetically sealed-off, and mysterious monarchy in the world. Met with cruelty and suspicion by the Empress and her minions, controlled at every turn, Haruko suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her voice. Yet she recovers and perseveres, holding tight to the self that the imperial bureaucrats would see crushed. When thirty years later—now Empress herself—she plays a crucial role in persuading another young woman—Keiko, a brilliant foreign servant who dreams of having a career—to accept the marriage proposal of Haruko's son, the Crown Prince, the consequences are tragic and dramatic.

Meticulously researched and brilliantly imagined, The Commoner is the mesmerizing, moving, and surprising story of a brutally rarified and controlled existence at once hidden and exposed, and of a complex relationship between two isolated women who, despite being visible to all, are truly understood only by each other. With the unerring skill of a master storyteller, John Burnham Schwartz has written his finest novel yet.

Excerpt (pdf)
Reader's Guide (pdf)
A Literary Explication

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Read an Author Q & A

Read a January 2008 article in The New York Times:
How a Japanese Empress Inspired an American Literary Prince

Read a January 2008 article in Men's Vogue (PDF format):
East is East: The author of Reservation Road takes on the mysteries of the Japanese royal family

Listen to a February 2008 interview on KPFA in Berkeley (web link):
In Conversation with Richard Wolinsky

Listen to John's interview with Scott Simon on NPR's Weekend Edition.

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PRAISE

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

"[An] impressively imagined and often exquisite act of ventriloquism.... [Schwartz is] unusually sensitive to the Japanese habits of reticence and indirection....As in a Japanese room, nothing is out of place and no detail is accidental in this book. One of Schwartz's achievements is to take us into corridors and rituals that have almost never been revealed to the public.... What is singular and most striking about The Commoner is how deeply and authoritatively it inhabits the mind and the sensibility of a young Japanese woman."
   —Pico Iyer, The New York Review of Books

"Stephen Frear's film "The Queen" attempted to imagine what goes on inside the British monarch's head. In his new novel, The Commoner, John Burnham Schwartz takes a similar—and equally sympathetic— approach to the empress of Japan.... Out of this heart-wrenching history, Schwartz has woven a delicate, elegiac tale, intensely moving and utterly convincing. He has imaginatively reconstructed the private story while remaining largely true to the scant details that have been reported to the public.... It's magical to have the curtain imaginatively lifted on these mysteries."
   —The New York Times Book Review

"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."
   —The Washington Post

"A subtle, finely wrought fiction that evokes Jane Austen.... 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."
   —San Jose Mercury News

"[Schwartz] finds the heartbreak, the wistfulness and the poignancy within this world, demonstrating how easy it is to be trapped.... The monarchy depicted in The Commoner is rife with secrets and the Japanese notion of saving face, which makes the ending something of a contradiction. It both breaks with tradition and upholds it, a devastating throwback to the country's past and a move toward something resembling modernity."
   —The Philidelphia Inquirer

"It is very difficult for a 21st–century reader to comfortably enter the restrictive tradition that seems, even now, to be the Imperial Court. But it works because Haruko's voice is real.... So while the external details of life in the palace remain stunning, it's Schwartz's grasp of the internal struggle that resonates after the last page is turned."
   —The Denver Post

"Schwartz pulls off a grand feat in giving readers a moving dramatization of a cloistered world."
   —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"John Burnham Schwartz leaps with prodigious skill... His book will inevitably be compared with Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, but Mr. Schwartz's work is more delicate and graceful.... Through painstaking research and a humane sensibility, Mr. Schwartz has opened a window on [a] strange, cloistered world."
   —Brooke Allen, The Wall Street Journal

"John Burnham Schwartz is a keen observer of Japan—his 1989 debut, Bicycle Days, nicely captured the travails of a foreigner desperate to blend in. He is also good at agony—Reservation Road, his second novel, was an unblinking meditation on emotional pain in the aftermath of a child's death.
  The Commoner entwines the two strands of Schwartz's expertise. Fascinated and appalled by the resonating stories of Michiko and Masako, he has written a novel that attempts to give these silenced women their voices back.
  It's a bold, even a presumptuous exercise—these women are still alive, after all. But for anyone who's ever sighed with regret over Masako's fate, or gazed at the forbidding walls of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, it's one that's hard to resist.
  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."
   —Los Angeles Times (read the full review)

"A bittersweet story narrated by Haruko Endo, a brewer's daughter who marries into Japan's cloistered Imperial Family, Burnham Schwartz's fourth novel expertly evokes the sense of powerlessness and isolation that mark both royal life and bad marriages. Inspired, according to the author, by the emotional struggles of Japan's fragile Empress, the former Michiko Shoda, and of her daughter-in-law Crown Princess Masako, a Harvard graduate defined in court circles by her inability to produce an heir, The Commoner is an artful meditation on the limits of love and duty. No happy endings here, but with a spare prose style that perfectly mirrors its setting, this novel will thrill readers who crave literary romance."
   —People (read the full review)

"This story is as ethereal and sensual as a Japanese watercolor, as magical and dark as a fairy tale."
   —Booklist

"As an author who has aimed for a clean, transparent style throughout his career, Schwartz finds his perfect subject in this tale of Japanese royalty. Fans of "Memoirs of a Geisha" and royal gossip will savor it.... Ultimately, the delicate, hairline fractures in Haruko's story are all the more heartbreaking for being so restrained."
   —The New York Daily News

"[The Commoner] paints a carefully researched, evocative of picture of a country that emerged from World War II with everything blown apart but its moat-protected heart.... 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."
   —USA Today

"A mature, polished Schwartz returns to the Japan of his successful first novel, Bicycle Days, in The Commoner.... [His] beautifully wrought prose enhances the dramatic effect in portraying the anachronistic, cloistered imperial prison."
   —Rocky Mountain News

"The beauty of the story, besides the meticulous research, is the human dimension.... Schwartz has written a powerful, instructive book about the pervasive effects that a strict code of rigid conformity and silence can have on two women once destined for an entirely different fate than the one they now live."
   —Tampa Tribune

"Schwartz's tale of how Haruko's life unfolds is a fascinating look inside the Japanese monarchy, and a moving look at how one woman loses her life— not her physical being, but who she is.... Schwartz keenly portrays Haruko's bleak emotions—the loneliness, the bitter sadness, the resignation to her fate—with a grace and depth that befits a princess."
   —Wichita Eagle

"A writer of great skill, Schwartz has made the imperial family entirely believable, especially Haruko, the future empress.... Schwartz has to be meticulous with the traditions and customs and historical references. He has to make them believable. And the has to weave his fiction around all that. A difficult task, but Schwartz has been able to produce a wonderful novel that reveals a world with roots in reality."
   —The Toronto Globe and Mail

"John Burnham Schwartz's fourth novel is told with elegance and historical accuracy.... Woven with language that is both touching and telling, the myth-like tale of Haruko's life comes full circle in a very epic sense....Ultimately, Schwartz's novel is a graceful narrative flight circumscribing the internal struggles faced by women from all cultures whose loyalty, duty and honor to oneself and one's legacy are more important than the oldest traditions, however noble or common they may be."
   —Bookslut.com

"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."
   —BookReporter.com

"Schwartz's renderings of the royal family are not only believable but absorbing.... well nuanced and tightly executed.... A moving portrait of women living the most interior of lives."
   —Bookpage (read the full profile)

"Schwartz is a master novelist."
   —Milwaukee Journal Sentinal (read the full review)

"A fascinating and moving book in which great harm—all the more painful for being quiet and impersonal—befalls characters who, with one exception, are entirely innocent and sympathetic. The Commoner is a rare novel, wonderfully researched and beautifully written."
   —Peter Mattheiessen

"A unique literary adventure, intimate, exotic; wonderfully imagined and achieved. The narrative impels the reader from first to last immersing us in its flow of ancient acceptances and new demands. Splendid."
   —Shirley Hazzard, author of The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire

"The Commoner is a lovely book, quiet, rich, fascinating in character and details, beautifully written."
   —Anne Lamott


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