Monday, August 20, 2012

I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Book: The Commoner

Author: John Burnham Schwartz

Published: 2008 (Doubleday)

Pages: 351

Slight confession--I'm trying to hack my way through a jungle of a hard sci fi collection, and the underbrush has swallowed me whole for about a month. It's made me too twitchy to deal with it AND real life at the same time. Last week I caved at the sight of the free book table in the Irmo branch library. FREE BOOKS, y'all. Free books that didn't try to explain string theory to me (well, not if I didn't want them to). 

I declared a break from the hard sci fi and dived right into my favorite subgenre of lit fic, the Cross-Cultural Relative and/or Significant Other Transplant. And I admit my opinion of this book might be colored by being my first gasp of familiar air in awhile, so I'll start by complaining.

The main problem with The Commoner is how big a deal everyone makes about Crown Prince of Japan marrying a commoner...who is not actually nearly as far from his social strata as warrants that kind of implied gaspings behind fans. Haruko's a beautiful young girl from a family wealthy enough to send her to private school and let her play enough tennis to meet the Crown Prince and get in the orbit of his social circles like that. Guys, this isn't Cinderella. 

And the Crown Princes have traditionally chosen Princesses from finishing schools very similar to Haruko's, even if she's the first one from hers. She doesn't do any scheming except whaling him in tennis, on accident because her people are like, "Don't insult the dude who's lined up to rule us by beating him as a girl!"

I do love their courtship. Their phone calls are the only alone times they get and they're so awkward, just like normal people who want to say so much but don't know how. 

But once they get hitched, the narrative gets general to the point where it feels like listening to an older relative tell a story rather than like actually being in the daily action of Haruko trying to grasp the magnitude of her duties. Which, okay, all she really has to do is produce a male heir, but before she does that (quite easily, really), I wanted to see her stumble on ridiculous robes or accidentally pour tea on the wrong leaf or just screw up a bunch of minor court rules until she begins to find her own inner royal. Like the Princess Diaries with way more dignity and subcontext between the passive-aggressive complisults from her mother-in-law. Haruko does get reprimanded, and often, but we only hear about the generalities in a diary-type listing of what she did wrong and how she eventually managed to get better with, it's implied, not more and probably less of a problem than a real, used-to-farm-dirt commoner would've had.

It's still a cool story and would make a kick-ass story to hear from a great-aunt or grandma or someone unexpected, but there are way too many details left out to make it a compelling triumphant struggle or living slice of history.

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