It is rare that a book can so easily enchant me; about one week has passed since I finished Arther Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, and I still find the characters roaming my mind like ghosts haunting the latest visitor in their home. I see the characters' faces in those of people I meet, and I remember Sayuri's story as though she were my close friend and had relayed it to me herself.
Perhaps, the story lured me in because the world of a geisha is so foreign that it is almost like that of a fantasy universe, though we readers know this intriguing world is far from fiction. It would be dreadfully wrong to classify Sayuri and other geisha we encounter in the story into the category of sex solicitors; rather geisha are better classified as refined, professional mistresses. Yes, sex and seduction is part the geisha's world in Golden's story, but it is not very much like that of a prostitute selling herself to a different man nightly.
Golden introduces Sayuri to the reader when she is a young girl living in a small fishing village on the Sea of Japan. The reader follows the terrified yet terrifically clever young Sayuri (then known as Chiyo) as she enters through slavery the world of an early 20th-century geisha -- a world where a girl's mizuage, or virginity, is auctioned to the highest bidder and her well-being depends on being beautiful and likeable enough to lure a danna (read: sugar daddy). Sayuri is a brilliant narrator with whom I instantly connected because of her innocence, inherent goodness and wit. Though she is a wise character in many senses, she also cannot help but follow her dreams, which often frustrated me because it compromises her character and delicate situation. Of course, these character inconsistencies make Sayuri all the more human. I appreciate and relate to many of the other characters, too, as their personalities are complicated, and I could somehow understand their driving motivations thanks to Golden's careful storytelling. Even Hatsumomo, one of the reigning, rival geisha with a fiery evil streak, finds a certain appreciation with the reader. The only character whom I would have liked to have better understood and learned more about was the elusive Chairman, the business man who serves as a racing force in Sayuri's young life. I found myself more sympathetic toward the Chairman's business partner, Nobu, who showed a great deal of complexity and depth as a protagonist and simultaneously an antagonist at some points in the story.
Equally fantastic as the storyline and character development is Golden's attempt to provide the reader with historically accurate information about the world of geisha. While I openly admit I know little about Japan or geisha in general, Golden relays minute details of geisha life amazingly as he weaves multiple story lines together. Golden, who earned an MA in Japanese history at Columbia University, also spent a summer in Tokyo and interviewed a number of geisha including the very prominent, well-known Mineko Iwasaki. The details of the pecking order in the okiya, or house where geisha families lived, are fascinating. The explicit explanations of geisha dress, hair styles and training also entice the reader and excellently explain the mysterious and captivating world. Though inconsistencies with Golden's story and the real world of Geisha have been noted, on a whole, I think the book succeeds insofar as it phenomenally entertains the reader while giving the reader a glimpse into the world of geisha. This book could be classified as historically-based fiction since it was so deeply researched, but the emphasis should be made that this is a work of fiction. It's a marvelously romantic story that relies greatly on the reader being able to get past any historical inaccuracies and enjoy the characters and romance.
I spent every free moment I had reading this book for a solid week, and I will not say much more about it for fear of spoiling it. Memoirs of a Geisha is definitely a must read with its seductive elusiveness, satisfying plot line and complex characters.
Read Deanna's review; she's taking the book challenge, too!
Up next: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I will begin reading this novel tomorrow, Wednesday, June 25, and I'm giving myself two weeks max.
Also, those of you who want to meet up for a Japanese dinner and discuss Memoirs of a Geisha, please send me an e-mail so we can plan a night. Of course, babies are welcome, though I'll be leaving Gabe at home to play with daddy. =)