Memoirs of a Geisha

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US hardcover, first edition.

Memoirs of a Geisha is a novel by Arthur Golden published on 1997-09-27. It tells the story of a Japanese girl named Chiyo Sakamoto who, at the age of nine, is sold to a geisha boarding house where she is taught to be a geisha. She becomes very successful and brings a lot of money to her house, but, despite being adored by many menu, her life is cold and lonely because she falls in love with a man she may never be able to be with.

I heard about this book in the mid-2000s because it became popular enough to have a movie made about it. I wisely read the book before seeing the movie, and enjoyed the book, and though the movie was passable. Afterward, I read what critics had written about book and was disappointed to learn that the book exaggerates Japanese culture so much to the point of Orientalism. I recently re-read the book with this knowledge and had a much harder time appreciating it.

Status

I own a first edition hardcover copy and have read it. I have also listened to an audio book recording.

Review

Good

  • I found the story to be well-structured. I identify with some of the characters, see their personal growth, and found the story to be pretty exciting and interesting the whole time. I always find welcoming the plot of a woman persevering through serious hardships.
  • Most of the women at the okiya are great villains, Hatsumomo is especially fiendish.
  • The author, Arthur Golden, consulted actual geisha for information about the book, which is nice.

Bad

  • Golden is a Western author telling a story set in Japan before he was born. Naturally, he gets a lot wrong. Biographies written by actual geisha tell markedly different stories. Golden is also a man telling the story of a half-dozen women. Because of this, it seems like he places a lot of male thoughts in their heads.
  • Some of the similes and metaphors are clever, but there are far too many of them. There are usually one or two per page.
  • All of the people in the story believe the transparent lies of Hatsumomo far too eagerly, even the women of the okiya who should know better.
  • The inclusion of divination is to be expected, but Golden unfortunately makes it seem real.
  • Sayuri's pining for the chairman gets old halfway through, and pretty annoying by the end.
  • Not too long after reading the book, I realized that I had completely forgotten the ending. The second time I read the book, I realized why; it's pretty dull.

Ugly

  • In general, fiction is expected to exaggerate reality to make it more interesting, but Golden uses someone else's culture in order to do this. Actual Japanese people have said that his descriptions of Japanese culture aren't too far from racist caricature.
  • Mineko Iwasaki, one of the geisha with whom the author consulted to get inside information into the life of a geisha only spoke with him on the condition that her identity never be revealed, but the author included her name in the finished book anyway.
  • The introduction paints the book as though it is an actual biography of a real geisha, and the narration keeps it going by including real events and people. Not having paid attention to the cover which identifies the book as a novel, I took the intro at face value and assumed I was reading a real biography for the first half of the book, but several aspects of Japanese culture were described so suspiciously, it caused me to check the veracity online and confirm it was indeed entirely fictional. I don't like it when authors pretend their fiction is real, it makes me feel cheated.

Covers

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