Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Review of 'Memoirs of a Geisha' by Arthur Golden

"Sayuri, one of Japan's most celebrated geisha, is both performer and courtesan, slave and goddess.  At nine, in a 1929 poor fishing village, she is sold to a geisha house, the buyer attracted by the child's unusual blue-grey eyes.  In Gion, the pleasure district of Kyoto, she works to pay back the price of her purchase, while learning music, dance, elaborate costumes and cosmetics, and maintaining a fragile coiffure with a special pillow.  With a magnanimous tutor and a venomous rival she survives the intrigues of her trade and the upheavals of war."

This book has been on my "To Be Read" list for quite some time, so I'm really happy that I managed to procure it and finish it!

I don't read very many books that take place in Asia, so this was a nice change to read an historical fiction about Japan circa World War II and earlier.

I thought that Chiyo/Sayuri was a good narrator.  I liked that we not only got her monologue, which is to be expected in a memoir (fiction or nonfiction), but she also speculated about others and tried to include the points of view of the other characters to the best of her ability.  This made the story more three-dimensional and believable, particularly because the characters were so different from each other and so vivid.  They were described well and they were memorable when they interacted with each other.  Just wonderful.  There was also quite a bit of detail included, which is just a bonus.

I was so happy that there were explanations of certain things throughout the book.  Geisha culture is so foreign to me that without these explanations, I would be hopelessly lost and feel very excluded, like I wasn't the intended audience for this book.  So it was nice to have kimono described.  How they were put together, the Japanese words for each of the pieces as well as the English explanations of these words.  I liked that the behavior of the geisha was described.  What was acceptable, what wasn't, how you could thrive with this kind of lifestyle or ruin yourself.  It was absolutely fascinating!

Though I was happy to have these explanations, there were things that I learned that just made me sad.  It's mentioned a couple of times throughout the book, because Mameha, Sayuri's "older sister" (meaning the older geisha that trained and mentored her), but being a Geisha usually isn't a choice for a girl at this time.  A lot of the time, daughters were sold into this lifestyle because their families were struggling (or in Chiyo/Sayuri's case, her family was dying rapidly).  What I also didn't like learning was how manipulative the geisha in this story were.  It was just uncomfortable to read about... Sayuri's own success was manipulation after manipulation after persuasion in order that she come out on top, entertaining the richest men (who were often quite sleazy too), getting them to bid against each other for one girl's virginity (mizuage), having them duke it out over who will be this girl's danna, making this geisha their mistress so long as he provided her every need and whim.  It was a little scary to think about...

What was nice to learn, because it shadowed the image of 'geisha' that I had in my head was that geisha are not the same as prostitutes.  They are entertainers who study dance, music, games, and the like.  So they're a little more innocent than I thought they were prior to reading this book.

The only real problem I had with this book was the ending.  It was nice that it ended the way it did, but it also felt too good to be true, for some reason... maybe because everything pretty much worked out for Sayuri.  She may have severed ties, but she was really enjoying herself when she moved to the United States.  Perhaps the book should have ended earlier than it did.

Overall, this was an incredibly rich classic that everyone should read whether they're merely curious about geisha culture (how it was in the past, at least), have an interest in history/historical fiction, or like books written in the style of memoir.

I give 'Memoirs of a Geisha':
Thanks for Reading!



  1. I loved this book so much that I refused to watch the film in case it ruin the story for me. I read it long ago but still remember the intricate details of Japanese life and the sorrow the heroine feels.

  2. I have a feeling that I'm going to be the same way, Sonia! But I'm also very tempted to watch the movie at the same time... what to do?

    Thanks for your comment :)


  3. I have been wanting to read this book since I was young. My goodness I remember when it came out (the movie) and the book was re issued.
    It's about time I pick up a copy and read it. I am curious to watch the movie too. I've been avoiding it in case I read the book I did not want to ruin it for myself.
    I think I'd read the book and then watch the movie.

    1. That's definitely a solid choice.

      After reading the book, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a copy of the DVD for not a huge price, so I got it and I viewed it. It's very, very beautiful. Different from the book, of course, but it was a very beautiful movie. If you're good at separating books and movies of the same title in your mind, you'll love it!



I love your comments! Comment away!