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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 (2,623 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: John Burnham Schwartz Narrator: Janet Song Publisher: Penguin Random House Format: Abridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date: January 2008 ISBN: 9780739358740
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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 longest-running, almost hermetically sealed, and mysterious 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 her is her ability to produce an heir. After finally giving birth to a son, Haruko suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her voice. However, determined not to be crushed by the imperial bureaucrats, she 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 in the voice of Haruko, meticulously researched and superbly 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.

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Quotes & Awards

  • 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)

Listener Opinions

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Adi4826 | 2/7/2014

    " I enjoyed the writing but it was so sad to me "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Evelyn Porter | 2/5/2014

    " An interesting story about the Japanese Imperial family and Japanese customs. While the book is based on real-life events, I thought it often lacked the depth and deep emotions that must have plaqued the young Empress. In the end, it made me very thankful for the daily freedoms I am able to enjoy. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Trinny | 1/31/2014

    " It was just too slow for me. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Laura Christoffersen | 1/29/2014

    " Wonderful book. the ending is perfect and not what might be expected. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Mandy | 1/25/2014

    " slow start but very good. nice writing. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Nancy | 1/19/2014

    " From the standpoint of plot, this was an interesting story about a woman of "common" (i.e. not noble, although hardly low-class) lineage, who marries into the Japanese Imperial family. Despite her own struggles to adapt to the severe limitations her marriage demands, she later coaxes a promising young woman to make similar sacrifices by marrying her son. The author, unfortunately, left me wanting so much more: more detailed descriptions of Japanese Imperial culture, deeper exploration of the relationship between the spouses and a closer look the relationships between the various women characters. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Ann | 1/13/2014

    " I'm looking forward to our book club discussion to get everyone else's take on this one. It was booooorrrrrrring overall, kind of a "what happens to Cinderella once the ball is over" story for me. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Bluelily3 | 1/8/2014

    " What's with Asians and sad stories? I think some of them thrive on them. Although, don't get me wrong, I love Memoirs of a Geisha, and that's sad too... "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Amanda Petrucelli | 12/29/2013

    " 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. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Carole | 12/28/2013

    " Interesting story...but not all that well written - lacks depth....! "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Diana | 12/28/2013

    " I like to read a book and have learned something. This book gives you insight into the life of the Japanese monarchy. The life is of secrets and controling. It runs along the line of the current history of the monarchy. I am very glad I on a wim picked this book up at Costco. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Psirene | 12/22/2013

    " A lovely quick read. The Commoner is the story of a young Japanese woman who is the first comman woman to marry into the royal family. It is a marriage of love and lonliness for an eduacated traveled woman. The book moves at a quick pace and is sympathetic to all of the characters. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Karen | 12/1/2013

    " I found this book slow and a little stifling, which probably accurately projected the world of the commoner turned princess in Japan. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Cathy | 5/20/2013

    " It was a little slow reading, but I thought it was interesting reading about Japan after the war. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Kit Oliveira | 5/17/2013

    " Interesting theme - Japanese commoner married to a prince. Searches for commoner for her son. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Kbrown5455 | 4/20/2013

    " After a slow start, couldn't put it down till the end. Sad story of regret and missed opportunity, with a soupcon of redemption at the end. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Heidi | 1/27/2013

    " Good historical fiction. The male author has great insight into the inner workings of the female mind - in particular, the common woman who ends up becoming the Empress of Japan, and the cost to her identity and relationships. Beautiful story, great resolution at the end. He is a very good writer. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Patrick | 12/15/2012

    " Interesting telling of what is ultimately a very depressing story. The fact that it is loosely based upon the actual Japanese Imperial family drew me into the book, but also made it somewhat unsatisfying since we cannot really know how accurate it is. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Tonidoilney | 3/31/2012

    " Very interesting read...gives insite into Japanese attitudes and the burdens on the Japanese Imperial family that we would never imagine. Very readable. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Elizabeth | 12/2/2011

    " Beautifully written. I read this before 'American Wife' and they are both about the decisions you make in life and who you marry. Very different styles, of course. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Veronica | 5/22/2011

    " What an enjoyable well written novel. Schwartz describes the solitary life of the crown princess of Japan in the early 1960's so well that it makes me wonder how anyone would want to do this job at all
    especially when it seems that your only worth is to produce a male heir. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Penny | 4/23/2011

    " What perfect timing for this read with Kate and William married just as I finished. The story is very even keeled (read slightly boring) with a good overall story providing you can stay awake long enough to finish it. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Bluelily3 | 4/11/2011

    " What's with Asians and sad stories? I think some of them thrive on them. Although, don't get me wrong, I love Memoirs of a Geisha, and that's sad too... "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Elsie | 3/21/2011

    " Remarkable how this author was able to give us a woman's 'voice'. Beautifully written with enough history to bring us background. We always think we want to be the princess in the fairy tale but this shows that the "happily ever after" isn't always. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Sue | 3/14/2011

    " Fascinating study in what the life of a cloistered royal is like with all its limitations. Set in Japan based on their royal family, but could easily apply to Britain or other places where the monarchy demands a certain level of behavior from its members, including those who marry into it. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Alison | 3/9/2011

    " I liked the storyline well enough but never felt like I got to know the characters. The story just skimmed quickly along the surface and then it was over and I was left underwhelmed. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Kathleen | 3/9/2011

    " Interesting look into the Japanese monarchy, but ultimately unstatisfying. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Sarah | 3/8/2011

    " THe first part of this book was great. The second part, not so much. Its worth reading but I think the author is trying to fit way too much history into a short book and therefore the second half of the book is very disjointed. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Debra | 2/25/2011

    " Opression of women in the name of nobility. It crushes even the strongest soul. "

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