I’ve seen Memoirs of a Geisha on bookshelves for years and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it after picking up a $2.00 copy at the Half-Price Books Clearance sale (see the complete list of buys here). Throughout the first half of the novel, I was honestly pretty underwhelmed. By the end, however, I was blown away. The plot is unpredictable, the voice is distinctive, and the romance is anything but ordinary.
I always thought that Memoirs of a Geisha was an adult book, but contrary to my assumptions, Memoirs of a Geisha is really a coming-of-age tale about a young girl named Chiyo who is sold to an okiya, or geisha house, to work as a maid and eventually train to become a geisha. Chiyo’s stunning beauty and extremely unusual blue-grey eyes instantly make her a target of the resident geisha’s intense jealousy. Hatsumomo does everything she can to keep Chiyo from becoming a geisha, but with the help of Mameha, a rival of Hatsumomo, Chiyo–renamed Sayuri–grows up to be one of the most popular geisha of her time.
Though it might’ve been because I was incidentally very busy at the time that I started this book, I wasn’t totally engaged in the story for the first half of the novel. Most of the actions are driven by Hatsumomo’s maliciousness, and while it did build up sympathy for Chiyo, I got kind of tired waiting around to see what kind of conniving trick Hatsumomo would pull out of her sleeve next. I also thought Chiyo sounded too perfect at times. During the tribulations of her childhood, she barely does anything wrong (excluding one attempted escape), and it’s obvious (thanks to the interspersed tidbits of future Chiyo/Sayuri narrating) that she is ultimately successful. Thinking about it now, I can’t really say that she had any major character flaws; initially, she’s just made out to be this innocent girl who can’t control her own fate and therefore can’t assume responsibility for her inabilities. However, she’s still far from being my least favorite character.
The romance in Memoirs of a Geisha is unlike any other. Sayuri meets the Chairman when she is only a young girl, but their age gap is surprisingly not the reason preventing them from being together; instead, it’s that Mameha has planned for Sayuri to build a relationship with Nobu (Chairman’s business partner) in order to allow Sayuri to build a successful and respectable career. Sayuri knows that to have Nobu as her danna (or sponsor with benefits) would mean forfeiting any hope of ever becoming involved with the Chairman (bro-code in 1930’s Japan). Though she constantly thinks of him and wonders how he feels about her, their romance doesn’t play out until the VERY end of the novel, and when it does, she settles for being his mistress since he is already married. Their relationship is highly unconventional for a coming-of-age story and though it might have turned out pedophilic, I thought it was touching. From their first encounter, the Chairman does what he can to ensure Chiyo/Sayuri’s good fortune, even though he had no personal gain in doing so. On the other hand, Sayuri’s feelings for the Chairman seem like paternal admiration at first, yet they gradually evolve into something else entirely. This provides a refreshing departure from the “boy meets girl” storyline even though it leaves you guessing whether or not the Chairman actually thinks of Sayuri in a romantic way until the last few pages.
While it took me a while to get through, Memoirs of a Geisha was an easy, interesting read about a young girl who makes something out of nothing. Golden’s language is not overly complicated or embellished, and as a result, you get a realistic narrator. Though mostly bittersweet and poignant, the novel ends on a blissful note that indicates Sayuri’s contentment with her life. I can’t wait to see the film adaptation!