Title: Memoirs of a Geisha
Author: Arthur Golden
Genre: historical fiction
Year Published: 1997
Source: personal collection (bought sometime in 2006)
Reason for Reading: I’ve had it for four years; I had the urge to read something set in Japan; Historical Fiction Challenge
Summary: Young Chiyo is taken with her elder sister from their home on the Japanese seaside. With her parents’ health failing them, Chiyo is taken by a man she considers a friend to Gion and sold into the life of a girl destined to become a geisha, if she’s lucky. But Chiyo is foolish and, having been separated from her sister, she tries to run away. When caught, her “mother” decides she can’t invest in someone so unpredictable. Chiyo is bound to be a maid in the okiya forever, in order to repay her debts–until a prominent young geisha decides to train her. Chiyo becomes the prosperous and popular Sayuri, admired by many and hated by few. The story follows her as she attempts to get close to the one man who had been kind to her when she was still young Chiyo. She is willing to do almost anything to have this man’s affections returned…
My Thoughts: I quite enjoyed this novel. I was SOOO interested in the life of a geisha and, while this is historical fiction, I believe that Golden did do an extensive amount of research and thought a great deal into how he presented the information in a non-enclyclopedia-type way. I particularly like historical fiction that teaches me and I really felt like I’ve come away from this book with a new knowledge, however “useless” it may be in real life. While I’m certified to teach social studies, and world history in particular (that’s what I taught for my student teaching), I think I have learned a very one-sided history of Asia. At least in my experience, I’ve had a very Westernized experience with Asia–or just a purely Western curriculum, excluding Asia completely. So this book was very appealing to me.
Okay. But I am a little disappointed with the character of Sayuri. Ever since she met the Chairman, she had been striving to gain his affection. This didn’t particularly bother me much. I mean, a young girl can hope for things–even if I’m a little uncertain as to why she pined away for years after a man who was at least 20 years her senior, possibly closer to 30. I thought it was a crush and that, after a while, she would grow to like/love Nobu, who was so considerate of her and held her in great esteem. I never expected her to repay Nobu’s long years of support and obvious affection–especially after what he did for her during World War II. In the end, I found Sayuri to be so selfish. She was conniving and scheming in so many ways to get Nobu to leave her alone so she could have the Chairman. I might have had different feelings if the Chairman had given the slightest hint to Sayuri that he was interested in her. But she didn’t know he returned her feelings. She was hurting Nobu when she had no signs that it would be for good. I found her to end up like Hatsumomo had been at the beginning. Sayuri even hurt Pumpkin and was completely oblivious to how she had hurt her and that Pumpkin might resent her.
Aside from how Sayuri as a person turned out–I was glad when she was separated almost completely from her love in the end, even if she did it for noble purposes–I found the rest of the story really great! I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in Japan and/or historical fiction. I thought the part concerning World War II and the American occupation after really interesting. I wondered, “If Gion was even a little like Golden portrayed it before WWII, how would it have been after the war if the American forces (and therefore influences) had been absent? Would it have continued to keep such rich historical traditions?” It’s a great “What If?”, I think.
My Thoughts on the Cover: It’s pretty simple. Sayuri’s eyes aren’t how I pictured them in the book. I thought they would be more gray/slate-colored, not quite so blue. Sayuri even says at one point that she hadn’t seen the deep ocean away from shore where it was blue and green–she had only ever seen it as slate. So I pictured the water in her soul to be that grayish color. And the cover shows her not done-up as a geisha would be, but still with white skin–so it’s a little confusing as to which girl she was supposed to be in the photo: Chiyo or Sayuri?
Grief is a most peculiar thing: we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it. (p297)
“A woman who acts like a fool is a fool, wouldn’t you say?” [Nobu] (p366)
“I never seek to defeat the man I am fighting,” he explained. “I seek to defeat his confidence. A mind troubled by doubt cannot focus on the course to victory. Two men are equals–true equals–only when they both have equal confidence.” [Admiral Yamamoto] (p377)
“To be liked and to have true friends willing to help are two very different things,” I said. [Sayuri] (p395)
Adversity is like a strong wind. I don’t mean just that it holds us back from places we might otherwise go. It also tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be. (p405)
In order to get more out of this book, I looked at a few discussion questions as I found for the novel online. This got me thinking a little bit more about not only the writing, but the historical aspects of the book as well. In order to not clog up my blog with all the questions and answers, I’ve attached the word document containing it below. If you care to look at it, it’s there. But, like everything else on my blog, it’s really for my own personal reasons.