Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz (a review)

1.5 out of 5: The Commoner tells the story of Haruku, the daughter of a Japanese business man who catches the eye of the Crown Prince of Japan. Basically, this is a Japanese Cinderella story with a more equivocal ending. Despite the timelessness of the story and the evocative setting of the Imperial Palace, The Commoner is unsuccessful on many levels. Schwartz’s attempt to do too much in too few pages is the most glaring problem. The narrative covers Haruku’s life before the Imperial Palace, the Crown Prince’s courtship, her integration into the Imperial Palace, the birth of the next generation, and the next generation’s repetition of Haruku’s choice to give up the life of a commoner for the life of a royal. Schwartz raises interesting themes and introduces some promising characters and relationships along the way, but he doesn’t have time to examine anything in depth. Superficiality of plot development and characterization is the unhappy result.
Additionally, Schwartz’s prose is sometimes so ridiculous that I almost gave up reading at several points along the way. I cannot explain what I mean except with a few examples:
  • “The air-raid siren was so loud it obliterated the self; it sent us running from where we stood with such terror that our pasts were momentarily left behind.”
  • “A light but stirring breeze entered the house through the open windows and breathed innocent secrets onto the legs of every woman in the room.” (I promise I am not making these up.)
  • “The tremor had been in my imagination, that deep underground cavern where hope and feeling need not live in fear of each other.”
  • “[L]ife is not an echo, endlessly returning the past to us so that we might read and reread in its fading variations the meanings we cannot keep ourselves from wanting.” (Huh?)
These sentences do not make any more sense in context than they make in this review. If you enjoy well-crafted prose that actually means something, The Commoner is likely to annoy you.

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