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Memoirs of a Geisha (Golden) - Book Reviews

Book Reviews
Part historical novel, part fairy tale, part Dickensian romance, Memoirs of a Geisha is not only a richly sympathetic portrait of a woman, but a finely observed picture of an anomalous and largely vanished world.... An impressive and unusual debut.
New York Times


Golden's storytelling is rich and slow-paced. Like Austen, he lavishes attention on the minute details that regulate and define social distinctions. In the raising of a teacup or an eyebrow there are worlds of implication. The prose style is simple and strangely satisfying, perfectly attuned to its time and place. Golden manages to find the simile for every occasion. "That startling month in which I first came upon the Chairman again...made me feel like a pet cricket that has at last escaped its wicker cage. For the first time in ages I could go to bed at night believing that I might not always draw as little notice in Gion as a drop of tea spilled onto the mats." Golden deftly makes use of a culture that deflects emotion and makes direct communication taboo to create a world of intrigue and romance. Depression and war remain in the background while Sayuri imbibes wisdom from her mentor, Mameha, battles her rival, Hatsumomo, and yearns for the attentions of the Chairman. Memoirs of a Geisha is an intelligent entertainment.
Dan Cryer - Salon


Arthur Golden's brilliant debut novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a reminder of just how silly the exhortation "write what you know!" can be. Clearly Golden, a 40-something American male, has never lived anything remotely similar to the experiences of a geisha coming of age in the 1930s, the glory days of Kyoto's Gion pleasure district. Yet it is precisely this vanished world that he re-creates with subtlety, sensuality, and supreme authority, bringing to life characters so complete and idiosyncratic—so fully sprung from the eras he has evoked—that his novel ultimately overwhelms us, as seductive and beguiling as the geisha of its title.... Like a gorgeously layered kimono, Memoirs gradually unfolds to reveal the courage, love, daring, and hope of an intensely human—and, it turns out, surprisingly modern—woman. Sayuri's voice, alternately poetic and mischievous, lends the narrative an immediacy that provides a beguiling counterpoint to the exquisitely detailed rituals—such as the lacquered mask Sayuri learns to apply so expertly—that make up so much of geisha life in prewar Gion. Like Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World, Memoirs of a Geisha revives a long-vanished world and makes us experience, however briefly, its fragile, mothlike, and indelible beauty.
Sarah Midori Zimmerman (Writer-editor, New York)


"I wasn't born and raised to be a Kyoto geisha.... I'm a fisherman's daughter from a little town called Yoroido on the Sea of Japan." How nine-year-old Chiyo, sold with her sister into slavery by their father after their mother's death, becomes Sayuri, the beautiful geisha accomplished in the art of entertaining men, is the focus of this fascinating first novel. Narrating her life story from her elegant suite in the Waldorf Astoria, Sayuri tells of her traumatic arrival at the Nitta okiya (a geisha house), where she endures harsh treatment from Granny and Mother, the greedy owners, and from Hatsumomo, the sadistically cruel head geisha. But Sayuri's chance meeting with the Chairman, who shows her kindness, makes her determined to become a geisha. Under the tutelage of the renowned Mameha, she becomes a leading geisha of the 1930s and 1940s. After the book's compelling first half, the second half is a bit flat and overlong. Still, Golden, with degrees in Japanese art and history, has brilliantly revealed the culture and traditions of an exotic world, closed to most Westerners.
Wilda Williams - Library Journal


Cherry-blossom delicate, with images as carefully sculpted as bonsai, this tale of the life of a renowned geisha, one of the last flowers of a kind all but eliminated by WW II, marks an auspicious, unusual debut. Japan is already changing, becoming industrialized and imperialistic, when in 1929 young Chiyo's fisherman father sells her to a house in Kyoto's famous Gion district. The girl's gray-eyed beauty is startling even in childhood, so much so that her training is impeded by the jealousy of her house's primary geisha, the popular, petty Hatsumomo. Caught trying to run away, Chiyo loses her trainee status until taken under the wing of Mameha, a bitter rival of Hatsumomo.  

Chiyo flourishes with Mameha as her guide, soon receiving her geisha name, Sayuri, and having her mentor skillfully arrange the two main events vital to a geisha's success: the sale of Sayuri's virginity (for a record price), and the finding of a sugar-daddy to pay her way. Seeing the implications of Japan's militarism, Mameha pairs Sayuri with the general in charge of army provisions, so that as WW II drags on she and her house have things no one else in Gion can obtain. After the war, with her general dead and others vying for her attention, Sayuri pines anew for the only man she ever loved—an electrical-corporation chairman whose kindness to a crying Chiyo years before altered the course of her future.

Though incomparable in its view of a geisha's life behind the scenes, the story loses immediacy as it goes along. When modern times eclipse Gion's sheltered world, the latter part of Sayuri's life—compared to the incandescent clarity of its first decades—seems increasingly flat.
Kirkus Reviews




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