the Little Red Reviewer

Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

Posted on: March 2, 2011

Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

published in 1997

where I got it:  it was in the free box at work

why I read it: I loved the movie, have been meaning to read it for a while.

first things first:  Geisha are not prostitutes.  they are not home-wreckers, they are not call-girls, they are not exotic dancers. If you’re having even the slightest difficulty grokking that, Memoirs of a Geisha probably isn’t the book for you. Or perhaps it’s the perfect book for you.

With her parents no longer able to support her, Chiyo and her older sister are sold to a broker of sorts, who arranges for the girls to be taken to Kyoto. Perhaps they will be maids their entire life, perhaps geisha, perhaps something else.  Chiyo finds herself at nine years old as a maid in an Okiya alongside another girl named Pumpkin.   Coming face to face with Hatsumomo, the Geisha of the  okiya, Chiyo learns fast that her life will take one of two paths: become a geisha, or be a maid for the rest of her life.

After a chance encounter with a gentleman, Chiyo experiences her first crush and decides no matter what, she will become a geisha in hopes of meeting this man again.  Taken on as an apprentice by the famous geisha Mameha, who happens to be Hatsumomo’s chief rival, Chiyo is about to discover becoming a geisha is harder than she ever imagined.  Hours of education on music, dance, and the art of conversation, and still, no garauntee of anything unless she gains a wealthy and influential danna, or patron.  Meanwhile, her crush has turned into an obsession of sorts.  But Chiyo is young and naive, and doesn’t realize that everyone in her life, from Mameha to the Mother of her okiya has their own plans for her.

The most interesting part of this book is the background of the Geisha lifestyle. The politics and competitions, the jealousies and machinations, the financing, what is an is not expected or acceptable behavior.  It’s almost like a debutant beauty pageant with no rules, clueless judges, and unlimited prizes.  And don’t forget the piles of money that are involved.   Geisha rarely own the countless robes and kimono and hair ornaments they wear. These items are owned by the okiya where the Geisha live.  Nearly all her income goes back to the okiya, so they can purchase more beautiful kimono and such. If a Geisha leaves the shelter of her okiya, she leaves everything that makes her a successful Geisha behind.  Also, the book takes place in the years leading up to Japan’s involvement in World War II,  and Chiyo’s life is turned upside down. The age of the Geisha is coming to an end, but no one knows it yet.

Unfortunately, the least interesting part of Memoirs of a Geisha was Chiyo herself. Even in her 20s and 30s, she remains naive, often voluntarily so.  Her youth is a bustle of activity, and I would have liked to have seen more dimension, more emotional reaction, and more sincerity in general to the changes in her life after she meets Mameha.  I’m interested in her story, but I think it could have been told better, maybe it would have worked better if written in a style other than memoir.

I usually enjoy historical fiction, so I was disappointed when Memoirs of a Geisha just didn’t grab me. The middle of the book really dragged, and more than once I thought about putting it down never to pick it up again.   I’m a sucker for period pieces, and having already seen the movie a few times may have sabotaged my enjoyment of the book.   I think the visual beauty and faster pace of the film probably gave me unrealistic expectations.  By the end it just felt overly long and I found myself skimming paragraphs.

Bottom line, Memoirs of a Geisha is an acceptable book, I’d describe is as a good beach read. It’s a fascinating look into a secretive culture that doesn’t exist anymore.  It’s fine if you’re looking for a slower paced, long term love story.

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4 Responses to "Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden"

I agree. It was good but didn’t grab me either.

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Nice review. I also agree, about the book not being gripping. When reading it I couldn’t get the fact that a western male had written the book which ultimately means the writer hasn’t convinced the reader.

Funnily enough I also felt a certain distance when watching the film but I think it was because there were so few Japanese people in the principal roles.

I also like the fact you start the review with comments about Geisha not being prostitutes. It’s still a misconception.

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There was a HUGE kerfuffle when the movie came out, there were very few Japanese actors. But it’s a very pretty movie, I’m such a sucker for pretty movies, I don’t care whose in ‘em.

Don’t even get me started on western misconceptions!!

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It’s a slow burn, but I found it interesting, especially as it’s that vague part of historical fiction I generally try to avoid. No complaints about reading it, but nothing to rave about either. I loved learning about the geishas and what their life became during the world wars, though.

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