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Extended Audio Sample The Commoner: A Novel, by John Burnham Schwartz Click for printable size audiobook cover
3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (2,617 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: John Burnham Schwartz Narrator: Janet Song Publisher: Penguin Random House Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date:
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It is 1959 when Haruko, a young woman of good family, marries the Crown Prince of Japan, the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. She is the first non-aristocratic woman to enter the mysterious, almost hermetically sealed, and longest-running monarchy in the world.

Met with cruelty and suspicion by the empress and her minions, Haruko is controlled at every turn. The only interest the court has in Haruko is her ability to produce an heir. After finally giving birth to a son, she suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her voice. However, determined not to be crushed by the imperial bureaucrats, Haruko perseveres. Thirty years later, now empress herself, she plays a crucial role in persuading another young woman—a rising star in the foreign ministry—to accept the marriage proposal of her son, the crown prince. The consequences are tragic and dramatic.

Told from Haruko’s perspective, meticulously researched, and superbly imagined, The Commoner is the mesmerizing, moving, and surprising story of a brutally rarefied 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.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “[An] impressively imagined and often exquisite act of ventriloquism…[Burnham Schwartz is] unusually sensitive to the Japanese habits of reticence and indirection…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.”

    New York Review of Books

  • “A mesmerizing novel full of tenderness and compassion, one that convincingly invests the Japanese empress’s voice with all the nuance it demands.”

    Washington Post

  • “Schwartz leaps with prodigious skill…Through painstaking research and a humane sensibility, he has opened a window on a strange, cloistered world.”

    Wall Street Journal

  • “Schwartz is a keen observer of Japan…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

  • “Instead of overwhelming a reader with the amount of research he must have done, Schwartz instead selects evocative details to paint finely wrought miniatures of the past.”

    Christian Science Monitor

  • “[Schwartz] finds the heartbreak, the wistfulness and the poignancy within this world, demonstrating how easy it is to be trapped.”

    Philadelphia Inquirer

  • “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 savoir it.”

    Daily News

  • The Commoner is a story about conservative Japan’s begrudging evolution. You’ll find humanity’s struggle in there, too. The research on post-war Japan rewards readers with fascinating scenes…and the writing bristles with a calculated swing.”

    Cleveland Plain Dealer

  • “Brave is the novelist who casts a narrative in a voice that traverses gender and a cultural divide. Schwartz makes the gambit pay off, impressively, in The Commoner…[He] does a superb job of conveying the painful sense of isolation that comes from living in a cloistered world.”

    St. Louis Post-Dispatch

  • “Schwartz is a master novelist.”

    Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

  • “A subtle, finely wrought fiction that evokes Jane Austen…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

  • “It is very difficult for a twenty-first-century reader to comfortably enter the restrictive tradition that seems, even now, to be the Imperial Court…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.”

    Denver Post

  • “The beauty of the story, besides the meticulous research, is the human dimension…Schwartz has written a powerful, instructive book.”

    Tampa Tribune

  • “A riveting narrative, smoothly written and often heartbreaking…The Commoner offers a fascinating, in-depth look at an ancient world of courtly institutions, formal performance, and individual negation.”

    Providence Journal

  • “[The Commoner] paints a carefully researched, evocative 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

  • “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.”


  • “Schwartz pulls off a grand feat in giving readers a moving dramatization of a cloistered world.”

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  • “This story is as ethereal and sensual as a Japanese watercolor, as magical and dark as a fairy tale.”


  • The Commoner is a lovely book, quiet, rich, fascinating in character and details, beautifully written.”

    Anne Lamott, New York Times bestselling author of Traveling Mercies

  • “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, New York Times bestselling 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, New York Times bestselling author of Killing Mister Watson

Listener Opinions

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 by Ida | 2/12/2014

    " Book club book (my pick for first round): I liked this story of a commoner who marries into the royal Japanese family, and her struggles with tradition. I think it was well written for a male author, but he may not have captured exactly the way a woman would have thought/acted in all situations. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Helen | 2/11/2014

    " i enjoyed this one. lots of interesting background on Japanese culture. Pretty amazing how it is so similar to the royal hierarchy in England, etc. sad story line. didn't like the ending...but fascinating story in all. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 by Margaret | 2/11/2014

    " this was not a very interesting book. I read it very quickly and would not recommend it. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 by Amanda Petrucelli | 1/26/2014

    " Up to the point where she loses her voice, the book was gripping. Neat imagining of the Japanese empire from the outside female perspective. But after her breakdown, it lost energy for me. Still, a pleasant read for a snow day. "

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