Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

20 Books of Summer 2016: Book Two

I threw a re-read into my list of books for the summer reading challenge hosted by Cathy746books. Most everything I’ve re-read from my high school days has been better now (see TGG, TKAM, and ASP). I assumed I’d feel similarly about Memoirs of a Geisha. But, nope. Not even close.

Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha follows Chiyo’s transformation from a poor fishmonger’s daughter into Sayuri, one of the most sought-after geisha in Japan in the years before WWII. Her rise is aided by her unique, grey eyes and Mameha, a successful geisha who helps complete her training. There’s plenty of backbiting and competition with a rival geisha, Hatsumomo, but as the book begins with a fictional “Translator’s Note” that places Sayuri in a posh NYC loft with well-heeled guests, there’s little suspense that she’ll rise to the top.

High School Opinion:

I loved the subtle ways Sayuri learns to charm men. Her chalk-white make-up is painted on like a mask with visible skin around her hairline; the more it resembles a mask, the more it draws attention to her bare skin beneath. I liked the classiness inherent in this kind of sexuality and was fascinated by how much power could be exercised by flashing a sliver of flesh or through a delicate gesture.

Current Opinion:

I still like the subtlety, but it’s dull to watch Sayuri wind men around her fingers when the men are single-minded drips. As a woman, Sayuri has few available opportunities, but as a prominent geisha, she has influence over those who would deem her powerless. This kind of turnaround is interesting on its face, but it’s poorly executed in Memoirs. Sure, most exchanges occur after the men enter a tea-house in expectation of titillation and entertainment, but still. This would be a tiny quibble if the plot weren’t built around Sayuri holding the attention (and affection) of a line of men, each more successful than the last. Most disappointing: For all the talk of how geisha can hold a conversation, good conversation is hard to find in this book. This is an awkward thing to leave off the page because it makes a reader question Sayuri’s actual skill. Of all the things that are hard to “show, don’t tell,” conversation isn’t one of them. Sayuri intrigues everyone she meets, but she rarely works out what to say. My personal favorite is when she describes a scar on her leg to the doctor who patched her up:

“A cut of that sort should have healed smoothly,” he told me.
“Perhaps it isn’t as big as I’ve said. After all, my leg is very… well, sensitive, you see. Even just a drop of rain falling onto it is enough to make me shudder!”
I’m not going to pretend any of this made sense. A bump wouldn’t seem bigger just because my leg was sensitive; and anyway, when was the last time I’d felt a drop of rain on my bare leg? (247)

High School Opinion:

Hatsumomo, Sayuri’s chief rival, was a great villain. Having a single person be the source of so much conflict in the novel allows the struggle to be personal and focused. It developed Sayuri’s character, the character of her allies, and the mean-girl sniping was something I related to as a high-schooler.

Current Opinion:

Hatsumomo is vicious, but boring. There’s no difference between her first appearance and her last. Given that this novel spans decades, what a disappointment that the years can’t bring her a little shading. The reader is told that her most prominent trait is her calculating nature, but she uses it to spread gossip, drink, and make shortsighted decisions. Her static relationship with Chiyo/Sayuri quickly wears thin. Character development isn’t just for the main character and look, we’re already back to the whole “show, don’t tell” thing.

High School Opinion:

The ending was sweet.

Current Opinion:

The ending is a monumental misstep. How to do this without spoilers… Chiyo’s transformation into Sayuri was always the product of a timing, luck, and her super-special grey eyes. It received a proper kick-off when Mameha, a prominent geisha, reinstalled her in her classes. At the time, this was an acceptable plot point: It made sense for Mameha to take Chiyo as her little sister and share her earnings while competing with Hatsumomo. It fed the larger narrative of Chiyo vs. Hatsumomo and Mameha vs. Hatsumomo (and basically everyone else vs. Hatsumomo). But in the final pages, the reader learns that Mameha had another motivation—an extremely convenient motivation that reduces the ending to a mushy, cheesy soup. In digging for a comparison, the end of the Twilight Saga came to mind (how I loathe calling it a “saga”). What does that tell you?

High School Opinion:

I accepted the book as rigorously researched and true.

Current Opinion:

Not so much. Golden took flak from his main source who was horrified to read the whole thing about auctioning Sayuri’s virginity. Geisha don’t do that kind of escorting. So far as this book is concerned, I’m a reader and not a researcher, but I took it with a bigger grain of salt the second time through.

In Summary:

It’s a hard book to put down. Just like last time, I finished it in a single sitting. True or not, so many of the details about hair, make-up, kimono, dance, poise, tea, etc. are fascinating. But in between imagining all these little details, I spent more time thinking about how thinly the story was pieced together. In addition to Hatsumomo’s flatness, Sayuri also shows little growth: Sure, we see her going to fancier places and wearing finer kimono, but her exchanges with men are always awkward. When she tries to be sexual, she overshoots and embarrasses herself. When someone just wants to talk, she’s evasive and coy, holding a conversation with herself that doesn’t consider the other person. If it weren’t for her grey eyes, I’m not sure she’d be memorable at all.

Golden put a lot of energy into crafting a setting and heaps of window dressing, but his characters aren’t constructed with the same level of depth. They exist to wear the clothes and create drama until that ridiculous ending comes in to paper over everything. What’s most amazing about the ending is that it calls into question moments that worked previously. It was so shallow and convenient I started to think I’d been giving Golden too much credit all the way through. If I’d stopped reading at 90%, I might have given it a 4.0.

2.5 (out of 5.0) That ending.

I suspect you’ll find this one hard to put down, which means it can’t be so bad, right? Is my bitterness over the ending making me harsher than this book deserves?



Previously On:
1. Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

9 thoughts on “Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden”

  1. I really like how you have structured this review around comparing how you felt about it then and now! It’s so interesting how our views of books change over time. Great blog title too! Bronte

    1. Thanks! I was genuinely surprised to like it less now than I did then. Generally, I get more out of books now than in HS.

      Sometimes I look back at old reviews and wonder if I would feel the same way if I read the book again. The oldest review on this site is about five years old, so maybe I should give it a decade or so and re-read my least favorites to see if I understand them better. 🙂

        1. Haha… well, it hasn’t been five years of consistent blogging. There have been some long gaps in there. Every year, I say: THIS is the year of regular, scheduled blogging!

          As for now, THIS is the summer I read and review 20 Books for the reading challenge. 🙂

  2. The book isn’t actually a memoir, but it’s based on someone, right? That’s really sad that she was upset with her portrayal? As someone else mentioned, I really like that you can compare what you read in high school with how you read it today. I can’t remember much that I read in high school…I know I read Frankenstein and dint’ get most of it (due to the language) and I read A Separate Peace but hated that it was about an all-boys’ school during a war. Of course, these were books assigned in school. What did I read on my own? I don’t know. There was no Goodreads to use to keep track of books like I do now. I don’t even fully use Goodreads to engage in community, but just to remember what I’ve read!

    1. I don’t know too much about Sayuri’s real-life counterpart. To my knowledge, Golden interviewed her to get an understanding of her way of life as a geisha, not to make her a character in his story. To me, the work is clearly fictional so I haven’t done much research into how it was written. Perhaps if it actually was a memoir, it would have been better…

      I remember reading this in high school because, at the time, everyone was making a fuss over it. I was fascinated by fiction set around WWII and, while the war isn’t a big part of Memoirs, it does shape the ending. Plus, I was really interested in Japanese culture (past and present). It is very approachable historical fiction, though knowing a little of Golden’s dispute with his source, some of the shine comes off of it.

  3. I also enjoyed seeing how your opinion of the book changed over time.

    An ending is important to the book and bad endings have colored my view of the whole story. There have only been a few books with endings I did not like that I still felt were well-written books worth recommending to others. I loved reading Gone Girl and have recommended it to others, but the ending annoyed me big time.

    So, no, I don’t think your bitterness over the ending has made you too harsh on the book. If it was going to have a crappy ending, the rest should have made up for it.

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