Thursday, December 4, 2008

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

I first became aware of Memoirs of a Geisha when the movie adaptation was released in 2005. It seemed everyone was talking about it, but I never got around to watching it myself. Then, this past fall Carrie and I hosted a book swap. The result was I received a copy of Memoirs of a Geisha, which was recommended to me by my book swap partner Amy. This review will include my thoughts on the book and the movie.

The Book:
Memoirs of a Geisha is the coming-of-age story of Chiyo (later Sayuri), a young girl living in Japan in the late 1920s. A series of unfortunate circumstances lead Chiyo to Kyoto where she learns she has been sold to become a geisha. Chiyo tries to run away, but is unsuccessful. The "Mother" of the okyia, her new home, will not invest money to train a girl who runs away, so Chiyo is demoted to the role of a maid and her life looks very bleak. To add to this, Hatsumomo, the senior geisha in the okyia despises Chiyo and is determined to destroy her chances of happiness.

For the first 100 pages of the book I hated Memoirs of a Geisha. Chiyo's story was so depressing and her future looked very bleak. But I pressed on… after all wasn't the title enough to know she must have become a geisha? After the 100 page mark the story slowly began to change and good things began to happen to Chiyo. I discovered that her story was more than just coming-of-age, it was was also a love story. It is only after a chance meeting with a very kind and handsome Chairman that Chiyo's outlook changes and she finds a purpose for her life -- to become a geisha so she can one day be in the company of the Chairman.

Through reading Memoirs of a Geisha I was able to understand who a geisha is and what her life is like, but it did nothing to help me understand the culture better. I found the very thought of middle-aged men (and sometimes even older) bidding for a teenage girl's virginity disturbing to say the least. On the surface the geisha appear as artisans. They dance, they sing, they play instruments and games, and act as hostesses who entertain rich gentlemen with conversation and stories, but under the surface they are more. They are kept women, they are mistresses and I found this a very sad fact.

In the end I didn't love Memoirs of a Geisha, but I didn't hate it either. At 495 pages the book was an easy, but steady read. The writing was good with vivid descriptions of the people and places of Japan in the early 20th century. I found the story interesting and the back story fascinating. For example, I found the chapters of the book that were set during World War II particularly interesting because, until now, I had never read a story set and told through the eyes of the Japanese during WWII. It was an interesting point of view to read and added to the believability of Chiyo's story.

What kept me from loving the book was more a barrier between my own worldview and that of the Japense culture and geisha lifestyle. In a way Memoirs of a Geisha reminds me of a Japanese version of Pretty Woman.

The Movie:
I waited to watch the movie adaptation of the novel until after I finished the book and I'm glad I did. The book has so much more detail and character development than the movie, but that aside the movie was excellent. The sets, costumes, and cinematography are spectacular, and the soundtrack beautiful. Overall I found the movie very well made and a fairly good adaptation of the book. There were some details to the story that were changed, which would only be noticed by someone who had read the book first, but nothing too drastic or altering to the story.

In Closing...
Yes, I would recommend this book to others, but only to certain people and with a caveat. Because the geisha are "kept women" it should not come as a surprise that there are numerous intimate scenes in the book that are sometimes graphic in detail. This book definitely has “adult content” and is not intended as a read-aloud for children. For those wary of such scenes my advice is this: either skim or skip the scenes while reading, or skip reading the book altogether and watch the movie instead. The movie was rated PG-13, but there are no scenes quite as detailed or graphic as in the book. Surprisingly Hollywood created a tamer story than Golden did.

That being said, if asked I would suggested borrowing this book from your library versus buying it, at least until you know for certain how much you do or do not like the book. On a scale of 1 to 5, one being horrible and five being excellent I would rate Memoirs of a Geisha a 2.5 to 3. A good read, but a lifestyle I cannot appreciate.

Final Note: Wikipedia has a summary of the book and the movie, complete with spoilers, but anyone interested in reading the book should stay away until after they've finished the book or the movie.

P.S. I was reminded by a comment left on this post of something else I wanted to say. Years ago my mother read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck aloud to me and my siblings. I think I might have been early teens. I didn't like the story. I despised the main character because of how he treated his wife. But I realize so much of what I don't like is really just a different culture in a different time. That said, if you have read and enjoyed The Good Earth, you may enjoy Memoirs of a Geisha and vice versa.


Carrie said...

I was really excited to hear your thoughts on this one because of The Craze over this book.

LOVED hearing your perspective. You were informative while giving the positives and negatives leading me to conclude I would probably rather NOT read this book myself but might be interested in the movie. Is it edited as to the scenes you referenced being present in the book? How's that part?

Thanks for your honest thoughts which are always so very helpful.

ibeeeg said...

I really liked this book. I tried to think of the time period this was taking place - maybe it helped that I read The Good Earth and few other books that take place in this region and relative close to the time.

I, as well, would recommend this book to select people.

I do not recommend the movie at all! It was awful IMHO and really does nothing for the story.

I loved reading your perspective. You are a very good reviewer.

I wrote about the book on my blog if you are interested.

Sarah M. said...

Carrie, the movie implies various scenes and might lead up to something happening, but then fades to another scene without showing anything. None of the graphic detail was included in the film. You see no skin... but for bare back or shoulders.

Ibeeeg, thanks for the reminder about The Good Earth. I'd forgotten to include my thoughts about that, which I intended. Thanks for the link to your review, I'll check it out! I enjoy reading other perspectives.

michellekae said...

I also read and watched the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha". I also had a hard time with the first 100 pages or so. I loved the book and then started reading Japanses Literature. Great review!!!

Rebecca Reid said...

I've heard glowing reviews and negative reviews of this one. It's in my pile for the next few months. Thanks for this review.

Beth F said...

Very interesting review. I loved the book. The characters and situations seemed very real to me. I understand why some scenes could be disturbing, but I kept perspective: different time, different culture.

Josh said...

I enjoyed the book. I too didn't enjoy the beginning, but really got into it. I thought the writing was excellent. Although I didn't agree with the lifestyle, I was interested in the culture and came away with being so thankful to be an American woman born during this time period.

I didn't care for the movie at all. Although it was faithful to the book, it just was lacking of something I really couldn't put my finger on. I think it was because the book was so rich in descriptions, that when that was only given as visual information, it felt lacking to me.

Anonymous said...

Oops, me above. I meant to say I really got into it later, probably about where you became interested in it.

Amanda said...

I loved this book from page one. It turned out to be one of my better reads of the year, and surprised me in how much I liked it.

I have to respectfully disagree about the graphic-ness of the book. I thought it was actually extremely tame and I was very impressed that Golden was able to tackle the subject without resorting to graphic detail. I don't like excessive sex detail in books, and I thought this did quite well in leaving out everything that could have been left out.

The Good Earth is on my list for next year.

If you're interesting, my review of this book is here.

thebluestockingsociety said...

Sarah, nice review! I've read this book and seen the movie, but it's been a while. I agree with your assessment that the lifestyle is sad, but I enjoyed reading about what these women went though. Congratulations on finishing a book and a movie for the Lit Flicks Challenge!

Jessica @ The Bluestocking Society

K said...

This is on Lit Flicks List too - trying not to read your review until I've written mine!