Saturday Read: Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

When I was younger, I was obsessed with Japanese culture. I tried to learn Japanese, read every book set in Japan I could manage and even made my mom take me out for sushi in the cultured city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, years before sushi was “hip.” Since then the obsession has died off considerably, but I still feel something for Japan. I had heard that  “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden was a fantastic read from just about everyone, including my mom and hair-dresser, but never managed to pick it up. Finally last week I decided to stop procrastinating and re-visit my childhood obsession.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” is set in Japan in the 1930s and ’40s. It tells the story of Chiyo Sakumoto who becomes Sayuri Nitta, one of the most famous geisha of her day. Chiyo is sold by her ailing parents to an okiya (essentially a geisha house) in the Gion area of Japan. She works for the Nitta “family” – Granny, Mother, Auntie and the house’s sole geisha, Hatsumomo. In an okiya, the “family” isn’t a real family at all; Granny, Mother and Auntie are all former geisha who now live and work together in the okiya. Chiyo is chosen by Granny because of her unusual eyes, which are a strange mix of blue-grey.

Hatsumomo immediately realizes that Chiyo will grow up to be a very famous and successful geisha because of these unique eyes and her natural beauty and sets out to ruin Chiyo’s chances of becoming a geisha. For years Hatusumomo tortures Chiyo while she works as a maid in the okiya and even convinces the Nitta’s to pull Chiyo out of geisha school, cementing her future as a maid. Chiyo hates living in the okiya and feels trapped in her life as a maid until she meets the Chairman. She meets him when she is only a girl, but she is completely infatuated with the Chairman and this infatuation drives her to become a great geisha. Perhaps if she becomes well-known enough, the Chairman will one day take her as a his mistress, which is the most a geisha can ever hope for.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” completely rocked my world. Not only is a heart-breaking love story, but Chiyo’s determination is inspiring. Golden creates a beautiful creature with Chiyo and really utilizes the geisha’s transformation from apprentice to full-fledged geisha to show Chiyo’s development into a mature woman. Reading Golden’s style was also a treat. His writing is amazingly poetic, but not pretentious. I imagine that “Memoirs” took him years and years to write because all of his metaphors are so clever and well thought out. I’m usually not one for description, but Golden’s was wonderful and only added to the elegance of the story.

But this book is about more than the story. The reader also passively learns so much about Japanese culture! I love to travel, but have never really been into Japan. All I used to associate with Japan was big buildings and technology, but now that I have learned about its history, it has definitely made my shortlist of must-see destinations.

If you appreciate a good, intelligent love story, then “Memoirs of a Geisha” is a good choice. It’s a beautiful book and story that will totally capture you.

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