Warning: This post contains spoilers, but probably none that would shock you.
Set in Japan in the years leading up to World War II, Memoirs of a Geisha is a “love story” about a girl who:
Is sold by her father into the sex trade. Watches her sister become a prostitute. Is beaten and starved when she tries to run away from the sex trade. Has her virginity auctioned off to the most perverted individual imaginable. Is later sold to a different man she doesn’t care about in exchange for favorable treatment for her adopted “family” during a war. Eventually becomes the mistress of a slightly less douchey man who she claims to love because he was nice to her once when she was twelve.
Like I said, this debut novel by Arthur Golden presents itself as a love story. We the readers are expected to become involved in the star-crossed romance between Sayuri, our protagonist, and a man who is known only as the Chairman.
And can I say that not giving your male lead a real name (ala Mr. Big) is just not sexy.
Anyway, our two romantic leads encounter one another for the first time when Sayuri is crying in a park after being beaten for not wanting to be a high class hooker. Suddenly, a man stops to help her, and gives her money to buy a snow cone. The man is described as being at least fifty years old.
At that moment, Sayuri decides that she is going to become the best, most high class hooker in the industry. So that she, a twelve year old girl, may someday win the affections of said man in his fifties.
When you take the book out of context like that, it’s legit creepy. But the weird thing is, I’d read this book at least five times in the past, and I never noticed any of this. Part of that is because Golden’s prose is so wonderfully lyrical that it tricked my brain into believing in the romance. And I mean that as a compliment; I was so swept away by the unique historical perspective of this book combined with the author’s elegant prose that it took me sixteen years to release just how messed up the plot is.
Perhaps it’s also because this is the first time I’m reading the book in a post #MeToo world, where we’ve become encouraged to find and point out problematic depictions of female characters when we find them. But at the end of the day, the cringey subject matter was only part of what really annoyed me while I was reading Memoirs of a Geisha this time round.
Throughout the course of the novel, Sayuri has no self-agency whatsoever. She just kind of…allows life to happen to her. She succeeds at becoming a successful geisha, not because she is particularly talented, but because she is very, very pretty. There are multiple references to falling water in the book, and how water cannot choose its course, but must flow where it will. Which I guess is true, but I was waiting for Sayuri to realize that water can also be an incredibly powerful force. I wanted to scream at her to stop being a puddle and become a wave. But she never does.
That’s another thing that irked me. Sayuri never strives for the Chairman. She never takes action, in any way, to legitimately bring herself closer to him. And perhaps it was a statement on the historical period, where women had almost no say in their lives, but at the same time we’re talking about someone who becomes a member of elite and wealthy circles. Sayuri becomes a world-reknowned geisha, she captures the heart of the man she loves, she gains everything she ever wanted…but in the end it was all a combination of luck and accident. And along the way, she unintentionally destroys the lives of several people (poor Pumpkin).
Weirdly enough, I would probably still recommend this book, just because the writing style itself is so enjoyable, and the historical setting was wonderfully–if inaccurately–depicted. And while Sayuri is a bit of a wet blanket, it is always fascinating to see the mysterious world of the geisha unfold through her eyes. Otherwise, this wouldn’t have been my sixth time reading it.
My rating: 3.5/5
Happy reading everyone!
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