The Commoner: A Novel, by John Burnham Schwartz (Read by Janet Song)
Once upon a time there was a young Japanese girl who was born a commoner but grew up to become the honored Empress of Japan but that's when the fairy tale ended. Although this book is a fictional account, it is based so closely on the real life happenings of the current Empress of Japan that it seems more like a biography than a novel. The fictional empress, Haruko Endo, daughter of a Tokyo businessman, attracts the attention of the Crown Prince of Japan when she audaciously beats him at tennis. She agrees to marry him although she fears that living in the cloistered world of the monarchy will restrict her freedoms. What she doesn't realize is that her mother-in-law and the royal household despise her and will spend decades making her life miserable until she herself becomes Empress. Deep depression claims Haruko's spirit and voice, leaving her with only her children and her husband for happiness. When her only son declares his love for a commoner, Haruko must decide whether to put the future of the monarchy and her son's happiness ahead of the young girl's, and the result is another unhappy royal prisoner in the Chrysanthemum Court.
It's ironic that such a sad story could be the basis for such a beautiful book. Haruko Endo and Keiko Mori are based on the current Empress Michiko and Crown Princess Masako of Japan. Both were commoners before winning the hearts of their royal husbands, and both have publicly suffered depression because of their private miseries as members of the Japanese monarchy. John Burnham Schwartz presents a meticulously researched account of life in post-war Japan, both in the villages of common citizens and in the palaces of the imperial rulers. Told in the first person, the narrator Janet Song casts a spell as the spirited and then broken Haruko, reliving her story of capturing the Crown Prince and ultimately being imprisoned by his handlers.
Although she was culturally and educationally accomplished as the privileged daughter of a wealthy business owner, Haruko was scorned as common and course by the Empress and the royal servants. Her pain of isolation and rejection seems even more intense when contrasted by Schwartz' descriptions of the gentle, serene beauty of Japanese music, art and traditions. This intensely powerful but beautiful story is like the flower of a persistent blossom breaking through the hard soil that encases its bulb. The beauty is evident, the struggle isn't, and without an author's uncovering of the inside story, we'd never appreciate the reality behind the illusion. Most enjoyable and highly recommended.