Memoirs of a Geisha follows young Chiyo as she is sold out of her childhood home and into a life of slavery. Although she is only a child, her pretty face wins her a position as a maid in an okiya, a home in which geisha are trained and which is supported by the earnings of the geisha who live there. (Satsu, Chiyo’s less attractive sister, is sold into prostitution.) The plan is for Chiyo to become an apprentice, with the hope that eventually she will be transformed into a beautiful, artistically talented geisha herself.
After a failed escape attempt and a subsequent beating, Chiyo is rescued by two people: Mameha, the most renowned geisha in Gion, who offers to become her “big sister” and train her in all things geisha; and a chairman who offers her a kind word on the street. Chiyo—who will later be known as Sayuri—becomes fixated on becoming a successful geisha for the sole purpose of reconnecting with the Chairman.
Now, to me, a really good book is one that makes me want to learn more about some aspect of the story, and Memoirs of a Geisha is definitely one such book. I’m eager to check my library for books about Japanese culture now, and geisha culture in particular. I want to know more!
I loved reading about Sayuri’s various geisha rituals, classes and accoutrements: the bidding war for her mizuage (virginity), her shamisen (a stringed instrument) and dance classes; the different types of shoes she wears; the intricacy involved in putting on a kimono and applying makeup; the way she successfully navigates her many social appearances; the drama of finding a suitable danna (a man who supports her financially).
Memoirs of a Geisha is a fast read. Knowing from the beginning that Chiyo is to become one of Japan’s most well known geisha made me want to find out how she got to be that way. Chiyo’s life is full of dramatic ups and downs, but she always finds a way to gather her inner strength and push through. I was very pleasantly surprised by how quickly I grew to love her.