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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Reader's Diary #602- Arthur Golden: Memoirs of a Geisha

With my recent trip to Japan, I've been reading a lot more Japanese or Japan-themed books lately, but Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha might be it for a while. Nothing against any of these books or the country, but I need a change of scenery.

Still, it was fun to read all the places in Memoirs of a Geisha and think, "hey, was there!" even if Golden's early 1900s fictional version of Kyoto was nothing like the 2010 real version that I saw.

Memoirs of a Geisha is supposed to be a historical novel disguised as the memoirs of Sayuri Natti, a retired geisha now living in New York. I say supposed to be, because it actually holds up better when viewed as a faux memoir than a historical novel.

As a historical novel, the blending of historical fact with the fictional story is often not cohesive. If you're interested in the lives of geisha, the historical facts are just that: interesting. (Though some have doubted the authenticity of those, I'm certainly not the person to know what Golden got right or wrong.) But frequently the book reminded me of Moby Dick, when every second chapter seemed not to be about Ahab but rather an instructional piece on how to deblubber a whale. The difference is that I find geisha intriguing, so I didn't find Golden's factual interruptions to be dull. In fact, they were often welcomed...

As a novel, Golden seemed unable to find a story arch to focus on. For the first half of the book, the major plot seems to be whether or not Hatsumomo, an older geisha living in Sayuri's okiya (geisha house), will sabotage Sayuri's career. Hatsumomo is a great villain, if not a little over the top, who certainly keeps things tense and, for a reader, fun. But it's almost as if Golden grew weary of her and she exits, I feel, prematurely and without the climax that was promised. Instead, the second half of the book seems to be focused on whether or not Sayuri will have to take the wealthy Nobu as her danna (patron) or if she'll be able to take his close friend and business partner, the Chairman, who she's been longing for ever since he treated her to a rare moment of kindness in her youth. While I wasn't as crazy about or interested in this latter plot, I would have a preferred it to a disjointed book.

10 comments:

Buried In Print said...

I remember some readers being irritated with the amount of detail about her training, but I found it fascinating too.

Kate said...

I remember enjoying this book when I first read it; but now, 8ish years later, I barely remember it!

John Mutford said...

BiP: There's also a lot of kimono description.

Kate: That happens to me quite a lot actually. The difference between a good book and a classic, I suppose.

matilda said...

I 'read' this as an audiobook years ago while pickling something or making batches of spaghetti sauce; I can't remember. But I do recall enjoying the story and how I kept trying to find more stuff to preserve. (18 hours of tape; our freezer and cold room were well stocked that year)

It was beautifully read by Bernadette Dunn, very easy to listen to. Much as I enjoyed it, not suree I'd have gone the distance in print.

John Mutford said...

Matilda: We look at it differently, I guess. I don't think I'd have gone the distance with the audio. Then, with the exception of a short story here or there, I haven't listened to audio books.

matilda said...

John -- Neither do I, as as rule. 'Memoirs of a Geisha' was a gift. The only other audio I've listened to was 'Across the Limpopo' by Michael Nicholson, the journalist, about taking his family out of S. Africa. Gorgeously read.

I think I was cooking again.

Certain books lend themselves to the audio form, I find. Others not. For example, I cannot 'listen' to fiction.

Wanda said...

Almost a decade since I read this one but I remember not liking the ending so much. I did enjoy the book more than the movie though.

Melwyk said...

I read this book for a book club. We only had one meeting, and I was the only one who'd read the whole &$%*# thing. So I can't say it was a favourite!

And I agree with Matilda, certain kinds of books lend themselves to my audio 'reading' better than others. I can not listen to fiction either. I've given audio a try but it isn't my preferred reading choice.

John Mutford said...

Matilda: Each Christmas I listen to a Stuart MacLean short story, but that's it for me for audio books.

Wanda: I'm not really interested in seeing the movie to be honest.

Wanda: Who picked it? If not you, did that person at least complete it?

PeachyTO said...

I hold this novel dear to my heart. I enjoyed the detailed description of the Geisha, their clothing, and customs. I also enjoyed the resilience of the character - or the real, depending on what you believe - Sayuri, and the tenderness she showed to others. I often recommend this to friends when I speak of my favourites.