Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
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bookshelves: the-japanese, book-to-film

”Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper. “

 photo MinekoIwasaki_zpsceab2a8e.jpg
Geisha Mineko Iwasaki basis for Chiyo/Sayori.

Chiyo, with her sister Satsu, and her mother and father live in a shack by the sea on the coast of Japan. The shack leans, and has to be propped up to keep from total collapse. Her mother is sick and on the verge of death. Her father is a fisherman, uneducated, and generally befuddled by anything that doesn’t have to do with his fishing nets. When a businessman from the village comes to them with an offer to take their girls to the city it doesn’t take much to convince the father that nearly any opportunity is better than staying there in the tilted shack by the sea.

He was wrong. Or was he? Without a crystal ball or access to a series of timelines showing the variations created by changing key decisions at critical junctures how can we know?

Satsu, who is fifteen, is promptly placed with a brothel. Not exactly what her father had in mind. I’m sure he was told she would be trained for “domestic service”. Chiyo, who is nine, is deemed young enough to be trained to be a geisha. She is a lovely child with startling rare gray/blue eyes.
 photo BlueEyes_zps8bedc458.jpg
Those Blue Eyes are what set her apart.

The Mother of her geisha house is equally startling in appearance.

”Instead of being white and clear, the whites of her eyes had a hideous yellow cast, and made me think at once of a toilet into which someone had just urinated. They were rimmed with the raw lip of her lids, in which a cloudy moisture was pooled, and all around them the skin was sagging.”

Obvious a bit of a failing liver issue going on here, but wait she is really much more mugly.

”I drew my eyes downward as far as her mouth, which still hung open. The colors of her face were all mixed up: the rims of her eyelids were red like meat, and her gums and tongue were gray. And to make things more horrible, each of her lower teeth seemed to be anchored in a little pool of blood at the gums.”

Okay so Chiyo lets out a gasp. She starts out her new life in trouble.

It doesn’t end there. She is quickly considered a threat to the lovely and vindictive Hatsumomo who is the only fully trained geisha working for the house. Chiyo is accused of stealing (not true). She is accused of ruining an expensive kimono with ink (true but under duress). She is caught trying to escape ( she broke her arm in the process so try and give the kid a break). Well, all of this ends up costing her two years working as a housemaid when she could have been training as a geisha.

She receives an unexpected benefactress, a mortal enemy of Hatsumomo named Mameha decides to take Chiyo under her wing and insure that she has another opportunity to become a geisha.

Chiyo, tired of scrubbing floors and being the do-this and do-that girl of the household realizes her best chance at some form of freedom is to elevate herself.

 photo MemoirsofaGeisha_zpsca597bfd.jpg
The Movie based on this book was released in 2005 and directed by Rob Marshall.

At age 15 her virginity or mizuage is put up for auction. It is hard not to think of this as a barbaric custom, but for a geisha, if a bidding war erupts, she can earn enough money to pay off all the debts that have accumulated for her training. Chiyo, now called Sayuri, is fortunate to have two prominent men wanting to harvest her flower. The winner is Dr. Crab who paid a record amount for the privilege.

”Of course his name wasn’t really Dr. Crab, but if you’d seen him I’m sure the same name would have occurred to you, because he had his shoulders hunched up and his elbows sticking out so much, he couldn’t have done a better imitation of a crab if he’d made a study of it. He even led with one shoulder when he walked, just like a crab moving along sideways.”

Not the vision that any girl would have for her first time, but ultimately it is a business transaction that frees Sayori from the bonds of debt. After the deed is done, the eel spit in the cave, Dr. Crab brought out a kit filled with bottles that would have made Dexter jealous. Each bottle has a blood sample, soaked in a cotton ball or a piece of towel of every geisha he has ever treated including the blood from his couplings for their virginity. He cuts a piece of blood soaked towel that was under Sayori and added it to the bottle with her name.

Ewwehhh! with a head snapping *shiver*.
The cultural obsession, every country seems to have one, with female virginity is simply pathological. Girls can’t help, but be fearful of the process. Not strapped to a table by a serial killer type fear, but still there has to be that underlying hum as the man prepares to enter her. I wonder if men, especially those who avidly pursue the deflowering of maidens, are getting off on that fear? I’ve made myself feel a little queasy now.

Sayori is on her way to a successful career. She is in love with a man called The Chairman and wishes that he will become her danna, a patron, who can afford to keep a geisha as a mistress. There are people in the way, keeping them from being together, and so even though there were many geishas who wished for her level of success she still couldn’t help feeling sad.

”And then I became aware of all the magnificent silk wrapped about my body, and had the feeling I might drown in beauty. At that moment, beauty itself struck me as a kind of painful melancholy. “

It was fascinating watching this young girl grow up in such a controlling environment; and yet, a system that can also be very deadly. One misstep, one bit of scandal, and many geishas found themselves ostracized by the community. They could very easily find themselves in a brothel. During WW2 the geisha community was disbanded, and the girls had to find work elsewhere. Sayori was fortunate. Despite all the hardships I know she was enduring, Arthur Golden chose not to dwell on them in great detail. I was surprised by this because authors usually want and need to press home those poignant moments, so that when the character emerges from the depths of despair the reader can have a heady emotional response to triumph over tragedy.

I really did feel like I was sitting down for tea with Sayori, many years later, and she, as a way of entertaining me, was telling me her life story. Golden interviewed a retired geisha by the name of Mineko Iwasaki who later sued him for using too much of her life story to produce this book. She even had light brown eyes not as striking as Sayori's blue/gray eyes, but certainly light enough to be unusual. I wonder if Iwasaki was still the perfect geisha, keeping her story uplifting, and glossing over the aspects that could make her company uncomfortable.

 photo MinekoIwasaki2_zpsa733c11f.jpg
Mineko Iwasaki

The book is listed in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It was also made into a film, which I’ve been avoiding, knowing that I wanted to read the book first. I notice some reviewers take issue with Sayori. They feel she did not assert herself, and take control of her life. She does in the end, but she is patient, and waits for a moment when she can predict the outcome. I feel that she did what she needed to do to survive. Most of the time she enjoyed being a geisha. It takes a long time to learn not only the ways to entertain, but also all the rigid traditions that must be understood to be a successful geisha. As she gets older, and can clearly define the pitfalls of her actions, we see her manipulating the system in her favor.

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Reading Progress

November 28, 2013 – Started Reading
November 28, 2013 – Shelved
December 1, 2013 – Finished Reading
February 9, 2015 – Shelved as: the-japanese
June 29, 2016 – Shelved as: book-to-film

Comments Showing 1-50 of 82 (82 new)


Jeffrey Keeten Venus wrote: "Thanks Jeffrey
The film by Rob Marshall is not bad but as always I like this book more than film"


I'm hoping reading the book first will make the movie more enjoyable. I can fill in the gaps of what they don't cover. Thanks Venus, you are most welcome!


Caro the Helmet Lady Lovely review, but the thing that you've mentioned about Iwasaki suing Golden kinda bugged me - she sued him, because he twisted the story to make it more "colourful" - for example, he says that geishas were never a prostitutes and it's wrong to confuse them with that kind of "entertainment", but then he tells the story of Sayuri's "virginity trade". In fact there was such a ritual, but it never happened with geishas, it was popular among courtesans of higher level in Japan. And there was more of such little things that he "overlooked" in her story. By the way, there's also a book by Iwasaki, written a bit later, where she tried to prove her point.
Sorry for messy english, I'm not a native speaker. :)


Jeffrey Keeten Caro wrote: "Lovely review, but the thing that you've mentioned about Iwasaki suing Golden kinda bugged me - she sued him, because he twisted the story to make it more "colourful" - for example, he says that ge..."

Thank you Caro! I didn't research the Iwasaki aspect too deeply. Golden probably felt he was fine changing events since the book is a novel. I know that the publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court, so she took the money. The book was very successful and so was the movie so I'm glad that she was compensated. Her book is nonfiction. I'm glad she was able to set the record straight. Your English is great!


Dolors Thank you Jeffrey for bringing an exotic breath of fresh air blowing in from the recesses of my own memory. You make great justice to the mythical figure of the Geishas and their apparent inaccessibility, coldness and impeccable composure while juxtaposing Sayori's ingenuity clashing in such a brutal environment. Your concluding paragraph says it all. Every innocent face hides its own secrets and what might seem a helpless young woman can become a mistress of strategy in this chess game called life. Colorful and evocative review, my friend. There is no genre that resists your writing skills!


Caro the Helmet Lady Thank you, I'm trying! ;)
And I'm glad she took the money, lol, she earned it.


Jeffrey Keeten Dolors wrote: "Thank you Jeffrey for bringing an exotic breath of fresh air blowing in from the recesses of my own memory. You make great justice to the mythical figure of the Geishas and their apparent inaccessi..."

This was a pleasant read. The experience could have been better if I owned a silk kimono that I could have slid into every time I had a moment to read this book. I'm sure you were better prepared.

Thank you for your kind words. I have been trying to write this review since Monday, but unexpected travel and this barbaric custom called work have kept me from reaching my goal until this morning. It was more with a sense of relief than happiness that I pressed the post button.


Kalliope Jeffrey, you certainly have a knack for selecting the illustrations that fit your review perfectly. I read this years ago, and enjoyed it too. The film did not thrill me.

Thank you for a superb review.


message 8: by Samadrita (new)

Samadrita Ewwww indeed (about that part with the freak who deflowered our geisha). Somehow I have never read this, partly due to the fact that I am wary of the fame of best-sellers. I believe Mineko Iwasaki published her own story to challenge Golden's version - Geisha, a Life. Excellent review and illustrations as always, Jeffrey!


Jeffrey Keeten Kalliope wrote: "Jeffrey, you certainly have a knack for selecting the illustrations that fit your review perfectly. I read this years ago, and enjoyed it too. The film did not thrill me.

Thank you for a superb ..."


You are most welcome Kalliope! Thank you for your kind words about the illustrations. I always hope they will enhance a review.


Jeffrey Keeten Samadrita wrote: "Ewwww indeed (about that part with the freak who deflowered our geisha). Somehow I have never read this, partly due to the fact that I am wary of the fame of best-sellers. I believe Mineko Iwasaki ..."

I too am wary of Best Sellers which is part of the reason why it took me 17 years to finally read this one. I don't really have a huge issue with Golden changing events as he did publish it as a novel. I'm glad that Iwasaki published her own version as well. I hope it was successful.

Yes the Dr. Crab character was bizarre. Can you image when he died and his family found all the blood vials? Ughhhh


message 11: by Sketchbook (new)

Sketchbook The movie was a disaster. Turned me off any book.


Jeffrey Keeten Sketchbook wrote: "The movie was a disaster. Turned me off any book."

Interesting enough the library copy I read was a 41st printing of the hardcover. I know it did well in paper as well, but I had no idea it had sold that many copies. I did stick a first edition away back in 1997 and maybe I can trade it for a good meal someday. :-)I will heed your warning and use my movie viewing time for something more productive.


message 13: by Steve (new)

Steve Another great addition to the Jeffrey Keeten Collection. This one deserves a prominent spot in the World Cultures section.


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "Another great addition to the Jeffrey Keeten Collection. This one deserves a prominent spot in the World Cultures section."

Along with the Jeffrey Keeten Collection I will be releasing my new cologne called Essence of 19th century Book Paper.


message 15: by Steve (new)

Steve You and Kim Kardashian are clearly the right kind of people to sell your own scents.


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "You and Kim Kardashian are clearly the right kind of people to sell your own scents."

Kim Kardashian has me beat at every curve. :-)


reading is my hustle ...I’ve made myself feel a little queasy now.


Too funny! Great review, Jeffrey. :)


Jeffrey Keeten Elizabeth wrote: "...I’ve made myself feel a little queasy now.


Too funny! Great review, Jeffrey. :)"


Thanks Elizabeth!


message 19: by Kyle (new)

Kyle Good stuff, Jeffrey. If you ever decide to watch the movie, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that too.


message 20: by Kyle (new)

Kyle Good stuff, Jeffrey. If you ever decide to watch the movie, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that too.


Jeffrey Keeten Kyle wrote: "Good stuff, Jeffrey. If you ever decide to watch the movie, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that too."

I will certainly share some thoughts if I watch the movie. Thanks Kyle!


Lawyer Another wonderful review, Sir Geoffrey. I read it upon publication and was swept away by it. You capture the novel exquisitely.


Stephanie *Eff your feelings* Great review, and I loved this book.


message 24: by Cecily (new)

Cecily What a beguiling review. Like you, I'm wary of bestsellers, so I've merely wondered about this. I like the idea of sitting down for tea with Sayori, though.


Jeffrey Keeten Mike wrote: "Another wonderful review, Sir Geoffrey. I read it upon publication and was swept away by it. You capture the novel exquisitely."

Thank you Sir Michael!


Jeffrey Keeten Stephanie wrote: "Great review, and I loved this book."

Thank you Stephanie! I was pleasantly surprised by this book.


Jeffrey Keeten Cecily wrote: "What a beguiling review. Like you, I'm wary of bestsellers, so I've merely wondered about this. I like the idea of sitting down for tea with Sayori, though."

I always have to remind myself that Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum were best sellers too. I'm so glad that I read them, but yes, still, most of the time the more hoopla the less likely I will read the book, especially in a timely fashion. Thank you Cecily!


message 28: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Indeed. I think wariness is the right level, which means I tend to wait for any hype to die down before deciding whether to pick something up. Nowadays, I also look at reviews by my GR friends, which are far more reliable than "professional" reviews in the newspapers, as the latter are often heavily influenced by what the publishers are pushing.


Jeffrey Keeten Cecily wrote: "Indeed. I think wariness is the right level, which means I tend to wait for any hype to die down before deciding whether to pick something up. Nowadays, I also look at reviews by my GR friends, whi..."

I know, isn't it great?! Before I buy any book or even pick up a book at the library I access GR to see if I should steer clear or snatch the book up.


Marius Hancu While reading Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, you may want to see my questions related to it as answered in the alt.usage.english (AUE) Usenet newsgroup. My thanks to the participating AUE members. The focus of my questions was the language: rare words, funny or original expressions, special or strange constructs — as I saw them, from within my own idiosyncrasies.


Jeffrey Keeten Marius wrote: "While reading Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, you may want to see my questions related to it as answered in the alt.usage.english (AUE) Usenet newsgroup. My thanks to the participa..."

Thanks for sharing Marius! Great stuff!


message 32: by Cathy (new) - added it

Cathy DuPont Hi Jeff:

You write such marvelous reviews. They're the next best thing to reading the book itself. Just enough to let you know if you want to read it (or not.)

This one? For me it's a "must read" well past the "want to read."

Congratulations, dear Jeff, for another outstanding review.


message 33: by Martyn (new)

Martyn Stanley Great review, sounds interesting. I find the concept of Geisha girls to be utterly bizarre, must be a culture thing! I ought to read this :P


Jeffrey Keeten Martyn wrote: "Great review, sounds interesting. I find the concept of Geisha girls to be utterly bizarre, must be a culture thing! I ought to read this :P"

They are fascinating. Entertainers, but not necessarily the type of entertainment one would think. Thanks Martyn!


message 35: by Siti (new) - rated it 3 stars

Siti I love the quote you have written.


Jeffrey Keeten Siti wrote: "I love the quote you have written."

Thank you Siti! I like it too!


message 37: by Delee (new) - added it

Delee Beautiful review as always Jeffrey!!


Jeffrey Keeten Delee wrote: "Beautiful review as always Jeffrey!!"

Thanks Delee!!


Margitte Ahhh Jefrey, what a great review, once again. I've read this book so long ago that I couldn't remember the detail in the book. You brought it so wonderfully alive again. It was an amazing read. Thanks for your great research and time you spend reviewing the books you read. It is always a delight to read.


Jeffrey Keeten Margitte wrote: "Ahhh Jefrey, what a great review, once again. I've read this book so long ago that I couldn't remember the detail in the book. You brought it so wonderfully alive again. It was an amazing read. Tha..."

Thanks Margitte! I tend to do a certain amount of research on most books I read. Writing reviews encourages me to do a bit more. Just one of the many benefits from reviewing books on GR. You are most welcome. I'm so glad my reviews are proving useful.


Jordan Griffin I really enjoyed this book it really touched my heart. Lol


Jordan Griffin I really enjoyed this book it really touched my heart. Lol Jordan Griffin


Your Excellency magnificent review!


Jeffrey Keeten Jordan Griffin wrote: "I really enjoyed this book it really touched my heart. Lol Jordan Griffin"

You are not alone in that thinking Jordan.


Jeffrey Keeten Your Excellency wrote: "magnificent review!"

Thank-You!


Aisyah ♡ Excellent review!! Really made me wish I could go out and buy it right this second. It's been on my to-read shelves for years but I thought watching the movie is enough to get the gist of it. I would definitely make reading the book a priority because of your review. Japanese culture is so fascinating!


Jeffrey Keeten Aisyah (*≧▽≦)ノ wrote: "Excellent review!! Really made me wish I could go out and buy it right this second. It's been on my to-read shelves for years but I thought watching the movie is enough to get the gist of it. I wou..."

I have many Japanese novels on my shelves. I too find their culture fascinating. Their novelists are among my favorites especially Haruki and Ryu Murakami. Thank you for the kind words about my review. :-)


message 48: by Iris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Iris Wonderful review! I read this book years ago and loved it - the movie later not so much. You describe the emotions this story evokes from its readers very accurately. I share your fascination and appreciation of Japanese novels as well as similar tastes in their authors. Thank you, I enjoyed reading your impressions very much.


Jeffrey Keeten Iris wrote: "Wonderful review! I read this book years ago and loved it - the movie later not so much. You describe the emotions this story evokes from its readers very accurately. I share your fascination and ..."

Thank you Iris! I'm so glad you enjoyed the review. I haven't seen the movie yet. I'm never in a hurry to see the movie when I liked the book. I like time between reading and watching. Thanks again for your kind words.


Carol Great review, Jeffrey! I loved this oldie but goodie!


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