The Commoner

By John Burnham Schwartz
(Vintage, Paperback, 9781400096053, 368pp.)

Publication Date: January 6, 2009

Other Editions of This Title: Hardcover, Compact Disc, Hardcover

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Selected by Indie Booksellers for the Spring/Summer '09 Reading Group List
“I love, love, love this book! In the spirit of Memoirs of a Geisha, this story of the only commoner to ever to marry into the Japanese royal family is a perfect reading group selection!”
-- Linda Grana, Lafayette Book Store, Lafayette, CA


In 1959, a young woman, Haruko, marries the Crown Prince of Japan. She is the first nonaristocratic woman to enter the mysterious, hermetic monarchy. Met with cruelty and suspicion by the Empress, Haruko is controlled at every turn, suffering a nervous breakdown after finally giving birth to a son. Thirty years later, now Empress herself, she plays a crucial role in persuading another young woman to accept the marriage proposal of her son, with tragic consequences. Based on extensive research, The Commoner is a stunning novel about a brutally rarified and controlled existence, and the complex relationship between two isolated women who are truly understood only by each other.

About the Author

John Burnham Schwartz is the author of the novels Claire Marvel, Bicycle Days and Reservation Road, which was made into a motion picture based on his screenplay, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly. His books have been translated into more than fifteen languages and his writing has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, the Boston Globe, and Vogue. He lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn, New York.

Conversation Starters from


  1. Because Haruko is a commoner, not a peeress, the Crown Prince chooses to break with tradition in selecting her to be his bride. Why does Haruko's father tell Dr. Watanabe that Haruko would be a "humiliation to Japan"? What is Dr. Watanabe's response? How is this break with tradition later echoed in the marriage of Haruko's own son?

Praise For The Commoner

“A delicate, elegiac tale, intensely moving and utterly convincing.” —The New York Times Book Review“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“Schwartz leaps with prodigious skill. . . . Through painstaking research and a humane sensibility, he has opened a window on a strange, cloistered world.” —The Wall Street Journal“Expertly evokes the sense of powerlessness and isolation that mark both royal life and bad marriages. . . . An artful meditation on the limits of love and duty.” —People“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 “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 Matthiessen “Schwartz pulls off a grand feat in giving readers a moving dramatization of a cloistered world.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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