Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Memoirs of a Geisha is a story of hardship, child slavery, the arduous path to womanhood, and the pleasures and pitfalls of getting exactly what you always wanted in the end. It chronicles the life of Chiyo, a young daughter of a fisherman in Japan, from her early days in Yoroido to life as a bonded slave in Kyoto in an okiya, a household supported by a geisha. Geishas are professional female entertainers who are skilled in the arts of dance, singing, sometimes acting, and keeping men happy at the teahouse. Chiyo leads a troubled life in her first few years at the okiya, and her rebellious streak coupled with the pure venomous demonhood of the okiya's geisha, Hatsumomo, nearly keep Chiyo from becoming a geisha. She ends up getting apprenticed to another 'older sister', Mameha, a much nicer geisha, and Chiyo becomes Sayuri, one of the most appreciated and asked-for geishas of her time. After a period of success, Sayuri is left fighting to stay free of a life in the factory when World War II hits and the geisha districts close. A previous acquaintance with an interest in Sayuri, Nobu, uses his business influence and wealth to send Sayuri to live with a kimono-maker and his family. They lead an impoverished but safe life for nearly 5 years before Sayuri is able to return to her life as a geisha. After another series of plot twists and would-be sugardaddies, Sayuri ends up with the sugardaddy she wants (here, called a "danna") and happily ends up his mistress for the rest of her days. She and her illegitimate son with said sugardaddy (known as 'the Chairman') eventually leave Japan and move to New York City, where they spend the rest of their days.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
Overall, I enjoyed this book, but I wouldn't recommend that anyone go running out to grab a copy. If I wanted to teach a group of children about geishas and a little smattering of Japanese history, this would be a fun way to instruct them. To me, the book read more like a very thorough encyclopedia on geishas than a novel. I admit that to cobble together the various pieces of history must have been difficult, and Golden does a decent job of creating a believable storyline - what the book lacked, though, was any real zing. I found it eminently forgettable. (And as a testament to this, I realized about halfway through that I had read it before for a high school assignment, yet I remembered nothing from the first read during this time through.)
- Translator's note
I started off confused. The book is obviously in the fiction section and considered a novel, but Golden starts out with a "translator's note", which took me nearly 2 days to figure out was fake, and was supposed to be a part of the narrative. I found it very contrived, not to mention VERY CONFUSING. I kept thinking, the book is in English. It's always been in English. Right? So why is there a translator's note? Maybe this was much easier for other people to understand. I, however, had to ask both my mother and my sister before I was convinced that I had surmised correctly it was a "created" part of the fiction.
- Mrs. Tanaka singing to the crabs
One of the women in the book sings to animals that she has to cook while they're still alive, which reminded me of the scene in Julie and Julia where Amy Adams can't keep the lobster in the pot (to kill it) and her husband has to step in.
"If she has to cook a crab, or anything else still alive, she grows teary-eyed and sings to them.
Little bass, oh little bass!
Speed yourself to Buddhahood!"
The other day I laid to rest a squirrel which seemed to have expired on the curb directly behind my car, and I found myself talking to it rather loudly, trying to comfort the little creature and assure it I wouldn't leave him there on the street for his body to be run over and mutilated. As I struggled to move it (without touching it with my hands) off the street into the nearby garden bed, I realized after roughly five long minutes of chatter that there were several people on the street walking their dogs and watching me with a queer look in their eyes. What, you've never found yourself talking to a dead squirrel? OBVI a normal thing to do.
- Very superstitious
Geishas don't go out for the evening without someone sparking a flint on their back for good luck. This sounds like a good practice. Now, who can I enlist to spark flints behind my back every time I leave the house? Suzy? Are your chubby little paws up to the task?
- Almanac, shmalmanac
When Chiyo tries to run away and it fails miserably, Mameha tells her that she should have looked at her almanac to see if it was an auspicious day to run away. Chiyo later swears by her almanac, and when she finds out Mameha has a big day planned for them, she tries to guess by reading in the almanac which days are 'favorable for traveling westward' and so on and so forth. Admittedly, it sounds like hogwash to me, but different strokes, I guess! I hope it's favorable for me to travel eastward in a bit and fetch some food from the kitchen for tea!
- "We change the weight of our clothing by the calendar, not by the actual temperature outdoors."
This line from the narrator reminded me of my time studying abroad in France. As we moved further from fall into winter, the house got exceedingly cold, and my host family, instead of turning on the heat, simply bundled on more layers. This led to an exchange between me and my host mother as follows:
Me (wearing a perfectly normal one pair of jeans and one warm sweater): Excusez-moi, est-ce que je peux avoir une autre couverture? (Sorry, may I please have another blanket tonight for sleeping?)
My host mother (wearing 3 pairs of jeans and two very bulky sweaters): Pourquoi? Tu as eu froid? (Whyever would you ask? You weren't cold, were you?)
Me: (do I really have to answer that question?) Oui, normalement chez moi on utilise plus du chauffage. (In my country, we have this thing called the HEAT that we use.)
My host mother: Ah, ben oui. On va utiliser le chauffage le premier Novembre. (Here, we turn on the heat on November 1st.)
Among the many courses geishas take is Taiko, a form of drumming, I had to give a little shoutout to my friend Margalit, who has taken Taiko for several years and is an Excellent drummer and speaker of Japanese. Go Mar!! :)
- Dritta! Dritta!
"At first I thought perhaps Mameha took me with her so that she could teach me things like proper posture - for she was constantly rapping me on the back with her closed folding fan to make me stand straighter..." This line reminded me of my grandmother, Doris, and her penchant for running her thumb up my spine and shouting "Dritta! Dritta, Meredith!" (I'm not even sure to this day what "dritta" means - I think it's Italian for straight, but I'm not 100% sure. What I do know is that it's grandma for Stand Up, Silly girl!) ;)
- "When debutantes disagree, they say it with their eyes!"
Mameha: "You're going to make a fine geisha, but you'll make an even better one if you put some thought into the sorts of statements you make with your eyes." This line made me think of the hilarious scene in She's the Man where the ridiculous woman from the debutante society ball is trying to train Amanda Bynes to be a Lady and says the line above.
- Sumo / luttes
One of the men Sayuri entertains takes her to a sumo match and tells her that only three things matter in life: business, sumo, and war. My brother-in-law, Lune, is Senegalese, and they have a form of wrestling that is similarly regarded. Matches often last only a matter of minutes (or occasionally seconds!) but the wrestlers spend months preparing and trash-talking on television and the day of the event usually includes holy-men and spiritual advisors, as well as songs and rituals that take up much more time than the wrestling event itself. I find it hard to believe that the event is that exciting (since it sort of looks like two big dudes waving their arms and waggling their fingers at each other) but don't tell any Senegalese people I said that! They'd go nuts! :)
Passages I particularly enjoyed:
- "Even when he summoned a look of concentration, you could run outside and drain the bath in the time it took him to rearrange his features."
- "He seemed to see the sap bleeding from the trunks of the pine trees, and the circle of brightness in the sky where the sun was smothered by clouds. He lived in the world that was visible, even if it didn't always please him to be there."
- "Dreams can be such dangerous things; they smolder on like a fire does, and sometimes consume us completely."
- "I saw life in all its noisy excitement passing me by."
- "Beauty itself struck me as a kind of painful melancholy."
- during the bombings of World War II: "Many evenings we watched the moon turn red from the fires in Osaka."
- "Adversity is like a strong wind. I don't mean just that it holds us back from places we might otherwise go. It also tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be."
- on the prettiest Geishas often being the nastiest: "I had to wonder if men were so blinded by beauty that they would feel privileged to live their lives with an actual demon, so long as it was a beautiful demon."