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Book Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden


     I'll start with my one and only complaint about this book.  My complaint is that the entire time I was reading the story, I thought that it was true.  I thought, because of the title and the tone of the book and the Translator's Note, which is narrated by a (I assume) fictional author/historian, that a geisha named Nitta Sayuri had dictated the story of her life to the author, who had simply massaged her memories into a plot arc.  (Ew, was that phrasing creepy? Massaged?)  Only when I read the Acknowledgments, at the end of the book, did I realize that Sayuri is a made-up character with a made-up life story.  The actual author, Arthur Golden, did extensively interview an actual geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, in order to write the book, and I realize now that the cover professes itself "a novel by Arthur Golden," so I can't be too mad at him.  But I did feel betrayed when, after 428 pages of rooting for the captivating, resourceful, unstoppable, improbable Sayuri, I realized that she never existed.
     Now that I have complained, I can rave for the remainder of this review.  Memoirs of a Geisha follows a girl, who eventually takes the name Sayuri, from her childhood in a Japanese fishing village to her apprenticeship and career in Gion to her final home in New York City. Watching the interactions of the characters in this book was fascinating - I especially noticed the evolution of Sayuri's friendship with a fellow geisha, Pumpkin, and the effect that a sociopathic (hehe, I've diagnosed her based on my previous reading) geisha called Hatsumomo has on herself and those around her.  I also loved the language in this book, especially the unlikely similes and nature imagery.  The descriptions of kimono made me (hopelessly) wish to find a kimono at the Goodwill. Kimonos, makeup, and physical beauty in general were very important to this story, which brought up questions about the role/subjugation of women in history.  Sayuri's life seems glamorous until you remember that her success and survival are entirely dependent on whether she can please men at parties.  Thank God I'm not a geisha because if I tried to pay the rent by pleasing men, I would be homeless.
     This book wasn't just entertaining, lyrical, and thought-provoking - it was also educational.  I knew nearly nothing about geishas before I read this - I thought that maybe they were expensive Japanese prostitutes. I know a lot more now, but I'll only tantalize you with a little of what I've learned.  Did you know that most geisha started out as slaves, and yet being a geisha offered women more opportunity for power and upward mobility than perhaps any other position in Japanese society?  Or that geisha went to school all their lives, becoming masters in arts and entertainment? Or that they had a big problem with dandruff?  The best thing about reading is that every book you read shows you a new perspective.  I emerged from the pages of this book slightly less ignorant about Japanese culture than I was before.

     - Carly

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