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royal suffocation

The Commoner, written by a male Harvard graduate from Brooklyn, is a compelling portrait of a young headstrong woman who marries the Crown Prince of Japan.

Characters drive this historical novel, based on the story of Michiko Shoda, the current empress and the first commoner to marry into the Japanese Imperial Family.

John Burnham Schwartz softly treads on Japanese tradition, giving voice to the private lives of the royal family. Though this novel is only loosely depicts the life of the current empress, it’s easy to get lost in the story and the painful isolation of a young commoner suffocated by the royal world.

The heartbreaking story of Haruko begins during the war, when her family was forced to evacuate Tokyo, which never was the same after the war was over.

“One would have noticed nothing amiss except on those days when a breeze rose up from the distant harbor and what we thought was purely soil and gravel and flowers behind our house turned out to hold ask as well. It entered our noses and our hair. Tokyo had burned and for a long time it would stay burned, and in my sleep even now sometimes it is burned.”

Haruko lived a normal life into her teens, studying at a prestigious Catholic school and playing tennis. Haruko and the Crown Prince met during a tennis match and romance grew on the court.

Haruko’s parents were fiercely against her marriage to the Price. “I believe the gulf is too wide,” her father told the Crown Prince’s messenger. “The gulf between the Imperial Family and our daughter. More than a gulf, it is an ocean. … Haruko could not possibly swim across such an ocean. She understands nothing about the water – how cold and deep it is, how rough – and she will drown. And when she drowns, we, her mother and I – allow me to say that I don’t believe we could accept it. It’s a sacrifice that we are not willing to make.”

But the sacrifice was made, and proven to be true. Haruko drowns in a sea of depression after her son is born, losing her voice for several months. She finds strength again in the eyes on her son’s wife, another young commoner trapped in royal matrimony.

Schwartz’s tender detail is enticing and his story is stirring.

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“royal suffocation”