Forgotten Fridays: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Posted November 29, 2013 by Kara in book review, forgotten fridays, Kara, Lyn / 8 Comments

Forgotten Fridays: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur GoldenMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Published by Random House on November 9th, 1999
Genres: adult, historical
Pages: 448
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

A literary sensation and runaway bestseller, this brilliant debut novel tells with seamless authenticity and exquisite lyricism the true confessions of one of Japan's most celebrated geisha.Speaking to us with the wisdom of age and in a voice at once haunting and startlingly immediate, Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. It begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old girl with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. We witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men's solicitude and the money that goes with it. In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction—at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful—and completely unforgettable.From the Trade Paperback edition.

forgotten fridays

Welcome to our second edition of Forgotten Fridays. This mission of this feature is, twice a month, to review books that are more than a year old. And we review them TOGETHER! Most reviews have minor spoilers because it is hard to block them out in a back and forth dialogue about a book. So keep that in mind when reading, though we do try to not mention anything that would ruin a book for someone.

This week we are discussing Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. It’s Kara’s favorite book and she was super excited about getting the chance to re-read this and experience it with someone else.

Forgotten Fridays: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur GoldenMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Published by Random House on November 9th, 1999
Genres: adult, historical
Pages: 448
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

A literary sensation and runaway bestseller, this brilliant debut novel tells with seamless authenticity and exquisite lyricism the true confessions of one of Japan's most celebrated geisha.Speaking to us with the wisdom of age and in a voice at once haunting and startlingly immediate, Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. It begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old girl with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. We witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men's solicitude and the money that goes with it. In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction—at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful—and completely unforgettable.From the Trade Paperback edition.

 

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Lyn: First, I want to state that I thank you for picking an interesting book. I couldn’t stop reading it!

I liked the background information. It was as educational as it was entertaining. Although I learned this just a few years ago, the author made a point to explain that geisha are not prostitutes, but female entertainers.

Kara: Correct! It’s funny that you mention that, because that is one of the things Mineko Iwasaki sued Arthur Golden for. She said that he made Geisha seem like glorified prostitutes, and I really don’t think he did at all. But I’m not trying to get into the lawsuit, as I think people can look that up if they want to. I’ll try to stick to the book, even though that is really interesting. What did you think of the characters? Let’s start there.

Lyn: I thought the lawsuit information was interesting. The story seemed, overall, clean and strayed away from sex and such.

Character-wise, that was the subject that seemed to tear at me. I’ll start with Hatsumomo. I did feel a sense of pity for her character. Girls were forced into the lifestyle, and the mental stress had to drive some of them to the brink of insanity. On the other hand, I worked with plenty of people like her in the past, and she brought a lot of her bad fortune on herself. The karma bus visited her before it was all said and done. I’ll also mention that the field brought it out of her. The competition was brutal, and she did what she had to in order to survive, even though her attitude was a double-edged sword–it saved her, but brought her destruction and defamation before it was all said and done. I know you have some interesting insight into her character.

Kara: Yeah. I actually agree a lot with what you said. Hatsumomo is a really odd duck to me. Most readers HATE her, and I can see why. However, I do empathize with her character a lot because of her situation. This is a girl that has basically dug a hole for herself with the Nitta Okiya. She’s destructive, irresponsible, and Mother does not trust her because of all her past indiscretions. So basically, she will never be adopted, and I think deep down inside, she knows it. Therefore, everyone that comes into the okiya is a potential threat. With Sayuri, it was like that from the start because Hatsumomo KNEW Sayuri was going to be something big someday. The only way for Hatsumomo to keep on going the way she was was to take Sayuri down. It’s cruel and it’s mean, but I see her as not having another choice. It was literally her only option. Life for women in this business is difficult now, and it was almost impossible then. It was depressing and many did not make it. They ended up homeless, in prostitution, committing suicide…it was such a depressing life and I know I could not have done it. The only way to survive was eat or be eaten. So, I do feel a ton of compassion for Hatsumomo, as horrible as she was. Does this make any sense?

Lyn: It does. I do not see many happy endings and feelings of happiness for any woman pushed into this role. One mistake could end your life. One ugly rumor could equal the loss of wages and a secure income. It is a constant dance on thin ice. I also was heartbroken about poor Pumpkin. I was just floored during the twist, but I could understand WHY she did it.

Kara: Yeah. It was hard for me. I think it’s hard for readers to see Sayuri as selfish, but as much as I liked her, she WAS.* But again, I’m not sure there was another road for her either. She was literally torn from her home and sold into slavery. Her obsession with the Chairman is a bit creepy and a whole lot unhealthy. However, I think she saw the Chairman as the one moment of sunlight in a very dark life. She focused on him to get her through the most difficult times, and I think in that life, it’s very hard to do anything but think about ways to get yourself ahead. It’s a brutal career and there is not a lot of room for friendships amongst women. Totally sad, by the way. But it seemed to be a constant competition. Same with Pumpkin. They had a lovely friendship that was (highlight spoiler) destroyed by Hatsumomo, Sayuri’s selfishness, and the fact that only one girl could be adopted.

*Lyn: I’ll jump in and agree that Sayuri was TOTALLY selfish and self-centered. She always seemed so thankless and purposely acted dense as hell.

The whole “romance” really kept me from rating this book at 5 stars. It was creepy and unhealthy, and I really, really, REALLY hate now poor Nobu seemed to get shafted every way possible. (highlight spoiler) Where was the damned precious Chairman when she was about to be carted off to some deathmill factory? Yes, the Chairman was a major point in her life, but he never seemed to give a damn about her after he saved her reputation. Nobu did a lot for her, and it might seem a little unfair that he was trying to force her into a relationship, but he was trying the best he could in her interest, and she treated him like dirt. She was a spoiled brat and childish. THAT was my biggest issue.

Kara: I completely understand this, actually. I do like the Chairman a lot, but I also really appreciated Nobu for what he did for Sayuri. He was supportive and there for her over the years, and the way he was treated is pretty difficult to deal with. I think what got me through it is that I look at Sayuri’s life as if she was someone who was depressed. She really wanted to be in love with someone too, and as much as she respected and enjoyed Nobu as a friend, I think she truly did not feel for him the way she felt for the Chairman. But then I look at her relationship with the Chairman, and I see a girl who was obsessed in an unhealthy way. (highlight spoiler) What if that had not worked out in the end? Then what? Also, I don’t know if you remember, but the Chairman was the one who got Mameha to train Sayuri. That came out in the end, so he did care a lot for her. He just had to keep his distance all those years. This is the one thing that shocked me upon rereading as I had forgotten about it. Knowing that Mameha knew the ENTIRE time that the Chairman felt that way for Sayuri but couldn’t say anything. And then Mameha ENCOURAGED Sayuri to go after Nobu instead of the Chairman to throw Hatsumomo off which ended up (excuse my language) fucking up Sayuri’s life for YEARS. What a mess. And man do I know how to go off on a tangent. Thoughts on this?

Lyn: I do, and I know that he saved her from a miserable life, but it seemed so…fake and creepy. I know I sound horrible and that I don’t believe in following your dreams, but it seemed that it was really cheap, the whole love story part. How Sayuri was able to escape the bonds from Nobu was flat out lazy, and really stupid. It made me roll my eyes and gag. I just didn’t swallow it. It might be that I related to Nobu the most in the entire book. You go out of your way to help someone, hoping that they look past your physical and mental issues and you still get treated like the unwanted pet dog and dumped off when a better and sweeter deal comes rolling along. It was lazy, infuriating, and I was very, very angry with the entire conclusion to that.

Kara: I can respect this, actually. I was always on the fence about Nobu. I LIKED him a lot and I saw myself a lot in his personality. I am grumpy, antisocial, but very loyal to those I truly care about. This is how he was, and I think he felt like he had finally found someone in Sayuri that he could give his heart to. (highlight spoiler) It was heartbreaking the way Sayuri set up the ending so she could get rid of Nobu. Did he mean nothing to her? So I hear you. I get why you are frustrated. What kind of ending would have made you satisfied?


Lyn: I don’t know. I’m at a loss of how it could have ended in any other way. Japanese culture was and still is very different from Western standards. She could not have simply explained the situation and all of it be happy-dunky-dory. Maybe Nobu could have seen what was between the two, or maybe if they had slipped away into the night into New York. Maybe if she had just took her own destiny in her hands and denied him and told him the truth. I think anything would have been better than the 1960s Batman solution How to Lose a Danna in 10 Days ending. It was just LAZY.

Kara: A lot of people complain that the ending was rushed and unsatisfying. I think you took that complaint to a whole other level. 😛 I wish she had told him the truth. That’s what I originally wanted when I read it the first time. I guess it’s just unheard of for women to speak up about their own desires so that would have been out of character for the time. It’s soooo sad. I can say that I know this is accurate because I read Snowflower and the Secret Fan, and even though this one is set in China, the women are the same way: obedient, and afraid to voice their own desires. Family and duty first. What a life that must be. Okay, so let’s talk about positive things. What DID you like?

Lyn: I really liked the voice. It seemed to lack emotional output, but as a memoir, it fit. I felt that it was more of an advocacy piece than fiction, even though it was just a story influenced by a true story. I liked the descriptions and the small injections of personal insight, such as Sayuri’s pleasure over the tea ceremony and her thoughts on the makeup and the staff. I like that it was a bit gritty and it all didn’t end in sunshine and rainbows, because this is not a Skittles and Kisses story. I think I have made my irritation towards Sayuri plenty clear, but that does not mean that I do not feel some sympathy for her situation. She was forced into it by people that she trusted. She did her best to do what she thought was right, and she was just as disregarded as anyone else. Her older sister left her to fend for herself, and the very man who sold her never believed that it was wrong. It was horrible, and it happens to young girls all of the time. This story did not set out to sugar coat the life of forced prostitution or servitude. It was and still is a very real problem.

I also liked the Japanese terms and the scenes with the tea houses. The sumo section was also a nice touch, and I was very thrilled to see it set during WWII. Most World War II fiction tends to center around Germany (and I understand why), but we were fighting Japan as well, and we really screwed them up. It was a nice fresh POV to see how the war affected our other enemies at the time.

The book, also, was very easy to read and very addictive. I was shocked that it took me a little over a week to read a pretty extensive piece of fiction.

Kara: I agree about the voice. It’s one of my favorite things. I think the author captures the voice of a Japanese female very well, in softness and inflection. It’s not a true memoir–he just calls it one–but it really comes off as if it actually is. I don’t think this is an easy literary technique to accomplish. The descriptions of all the different scenes and traditional Japanese culture are some of my favorite parts of the book. Obviously, I love the story the most, but I was fascinated by this new culture I knew nothing about and how these women carved out a life for themselves in a world dominated by men. They were a society of women running things and women working for women, and they controlled the men in their lives to squeeze the cash out of them so they could live entirely independently. It was not a happy time for women but somehow they survived and survived fiercely. This is why I see Geisha as some of the first feminists. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me here, but I am pretty sure you can see why I would feel this way.

Also, agree with you about the World War II setting. I feel like every book I have read about it has been set in Europe: Germany, Poland, Austria, etc. I find those books interesting, but I do feel the Japanese side of the war is oft overlooked and there is a lot of history here to write about. I thought it was kind of odd how none of the Japanese characters seemed to dislike the Americans very much at all, and I did find that unrealistic, but then Kyoto was very much left unaffected by the war compared to the other big cities. I think a little more could have been done to make this more realistic.

And yes, I actually do like that it ended unhappily. If you think about it, every single character in this book met an unhappy end (or at the least, bittersweet). I’ve had a lot of time to think about this book. It’s my favorite, despite its flaws, and I come back to it from time to time in my life, always analyzing it from a different angle. I rewatch the movie often (though there are some differences, I find it satisfying–Hatsumomo’s casting is KILLER), to keep the story fresh in my mind. At this point I think I have thought about everything there is to think about. I guess I will end there.

Lyn: I want to see the movie now. I think it would make an interesting Book vs Movie post. Great wrap up. Yes, it could have been more realistic. Overall, it was entertaining, informative, and thought provoking.

I rated it 4 stars.

Kara: YAY! That’s a higher rating than I thought you were going to give it. Though we don’t rate half stars on this blog, I find it impossible for me to knock it down a full star this time. There is a lot of nostalgia there for me, so I am going to rate it 4.5, despite the fact that I do not have a graphic for that. 😀 Totally agree about the book vs. movie discussion. I have a copy of it on DVD, and I would be happy to burn it and send it your way if you want it.

Lyn: Half Price gave me a coupon for 15 bucks off of 50 dollars tomorrow, so I might see if I can get a copy of the movie.

Kara: Okay, let me know if that doesn’t work out. Next we are reading Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. My book finally got here, haha. So I am all set to begin that one soon. It better be more enjoyable than the last one. *side-eyes Lyn* 😀

Lyn: Sure, recommend ONE BAD BOOK and then I get a rep. Go and bite your boyfriend and slink off into the night, woman!

Kara: Okay, fine, fine. Let me just say that my record is more sparkly than yours at this moment. Let’s hope you can redeem yourself. That better? 😀

Lyn: No.

Kara: Hahahahaha! Okay, fine. I am LEAVING. 😛


Lyn: 4/5 Stars
Kara: 4.5/5 Stars

 

8 responses to “Forgotten Fridays: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

  1. My biggest problem with this book has always been the relationship between Sayuri and Nobu and how she treated him. The fact that she regards him with a total lack of respect (and in my opinion, all because of his physical appearance and other superficial issues like that) really turned me off of her character. However, everything else about this book is just… there is a reason it is one of my favorites. The beautiful writing and imagery and that it can transport me to a world entirely different from my own. I love that there is a villain type of character who has real depth. While sympathizing with Sayuri when she was attacked by Hatsumomo I still could not help but feel compassion for Hatsumomo and I think that is the mark of a fantastic author.

    • ^^^THIS. The treatment of Nobu was my biggest issue. It just felt very unfair for someone doing the best he could in the cultural settings still get turned away.

      Natsumomo is a tough nut to crack. In the end, I did feel that she was the victim of her circumstances, and that lifestyle can bring out the worst in someone’s character. She was playing by the rules set up by her environment, and doing her best to watch her back. It destroyed her, but she knew nothing else.

    • Glad you love it so much, Bekka. I can understand why someone would be angry at Sayuri over her treatment of Nobu. It didn’t bother me that much but it does totally make sense to me. I am glad it is one of your favorite books, as it is one of mine too. This is the book this blog is designed after. Useless bit of trivia there for you. I asked specifically for geishas and a Japanese theme.

  2. Also, I wish I had known you were reading it because I SO would have read it alongside you guys. It’s been a long time since I actually read the novel and not just watched the movie – and since there were so many differences between the two, sometimes I get mixed up about which events happened in the book and which were only in the film.

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