There's nothing like a good Cinderella story. Partly it's the romance, partly it's the glamour, but mostly it's the myth, the intoxicating combination of obscurity and sudden fame. If a servant can become a queen just by wishing hard enough, standard limits no longer apply. But what happens the following midnight, and in the years to come? Inspired by true events, John Burnham Schwartz's novel The Commoner attempts to show the darker side of the fairy tale, with mixed results.
The only daughter of a wealthy Japanese industrialist, Haruko Endo grows up used to a life of moderate privilege. World War II leaves her family largely untouched, but amid Toyko's destruction and rebirth, she watches Japan's royal family lose its godlike stature through the influence of the conquering American army. When Haruko meets the Crown Prince during a tennis match, she beats him handily; this attracts his attention, and after a distant courtship, leads to a marriage proposal. Haruko's father objects, believing that even with the royals' degraded status, their world is too vastly different for his daughter to succeed. But his wishes are overruled, and Haruko becomes the first commoner to gain the title of Crown Princess. It's only once the marriage is formalized that she realizes the depth of her mistake; her life is no longer her own.
There's tragedy here, of a sort Disney would never bother to animate. But for all its graceful longing, Commoner never manages to go deeper than the monotonous rituals that make up its heroine's life. Schwartz tells Haruko's story through her own voice, and the measured tones read more like a formal exercise than a woman pouring out her soul. Comparisons can be made between Commoner and Memoirs Of A Geisha; both are meticulously researched, both offer fascinating glimpses into Japanese culture, and both ultimately fail to bring that culture to life. Commoner comes out as the better work because the story doesn't fall back on cliché, even when the writing does. Haruko's struggles to establish herself in a world of eternal symbols has a futility that never fails to ring true—a lesson that maybe some glass slippers are better left lost.