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 because of my station, which in all things would stand above me, and indeed would outlast me.”
As Haruko discovers, she is asked to become someone she is not. The person she is inside, is no longer important – only the image she is asked to project has worth. She finds the world her husband lives in is restrictive and her home becomes much more like a prison than a palace.
The author seems to place the characters at a respectful distance from the reader. This seems in keeping with the culture of Japan and the persons represented. At times, however, I questioned the seemingly Western attitudes of Haruko and her father. After reading Japanland, I was surprised at how un-modern Japan still is with regards to a woman’s place. I found it hard to believe that in 1959, a Japanese girl would expect and be given the freedoms that Haruko did.
3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2008