Set in Japan, beginning shortly before World War II, this novel tells the story of Haruko, a young woman from a very good family. She is coming of age as Tokyo rebuilds after the war, and she gets a taste of the outside world when her best friend writes letters from America, where her father is a diplomat. She is lovely, educated and accomplished, and Haruko attracts the attention of several suitors. The summer after she completes her university studies, Haruko and her family take a summer house in a resort town, where she spends much time playing tennis at the club. It is during a doubles tournament that she meets the Crown Prince of Japan, when she and her partner are paired against the young heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. This encounter will completely change her life.
If my synopsis makes this sound like a light romance, that is my failing. The dust jacket information tells the reader that Haruko will marry the prince, and fall subject to an ancient and intractable imperial household seemingly bent on destroying her. It is her struggle to maintain a certain independence and control over her life, and that of her child, that forms the true nucleus of the novel.
Schwartz gives us a rich background into the traditions and inner workings of the court. I was transported into this very different world. Right alongside Haruko, I experienced the luxury of this rare existence, and the restrictions imposed by the traditions, expectations and obligations of the position. I felt her frustration and grief as she lost the woman she had been (and might have become), and celebrated her small victories. I’m less satisfied with the way in which the novel ends. There is a several-decades long gap in the middle of the book, before Schwartz takes Haruko’s struggle into the next generation. How I wish he had stayed with Haruko and her life-long efforts to come to terms with the consequences of her marriage into the imperial family.
Readers should note that while Schwartz drew inspiration from the personal histories of certain members of the Japanese Imperial Family, the characters and incidents in this novel are a total fabrication. Although a Google search will point out certain similarities…