Four Star review, originally posted here on October 22, 2015.
Memoirs of a Geisha had 3 major strikes working against it when I started reading it:
1. It was a bestseller that everyone else raved about. I usually hate these books as they tend to be terrible (ahem, Water for Elephants, ahem, Gone Girl, etc) and make my brain hurt when I think about how bad everyone else’s tastes are. Because I am a snob, I guess.
2. I read it immediately after reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which was one of the most beautifully-written masterpieces I’ve ever encountered. Any other attempt at fiction after that would almost definitely pale in comparison.
3. This book is written by and for white Americans about a foreign culture, and I assumed it would be racist in one way or another.
So I’m not really sure why I decided to go ahead and read it- it had been sitting on my to-read list for some reason, and when I saw it cheap at a used book store I nabbed it and put it on my nightstand, and 6 months later I finally went “Let’s just read this thing to get it off of my nightstand.”
Well, I’m glad that I read it, because I wound up giving it 4 stars. This is not to say that this book is exactly good, per se, or that I was wrong in any of my 3 preconceptions. Golden is not Steinbeck. And I still have no idea how historically or culturally accurate anything in this book is. Supposedly Golden wrote it after conferring with an actual geisha, but then supposedly that geisha said that Golden got everything wrong and she wrote her own book, etc. I would feel better about this book if I knew that it did a good job depicting geisha culture, but alas, I really don’t know.
BUT, there was still plenty to like. The gist is that you should expect entertainment instead of art, and there is about 4 stars worth of entertainment in this novel. I read it the same way that I wrote my own self-published novel. It’s called Holly, The Captain, and Handsome Jack, and you should all totally go read it right now because I want you to. In both cases the story itself is pretty interesting. And while neither is Steinbeck, they both bring up interesting themes to mull over, like how enraging it is that so many women have been stuck in systems that make them subordinate to men, and where their fates are based entirely on which man choosing to marry and/or have sex with them.
I still have gnawing guilt about liking this novel because I still have no idea how historically and culturally accurate it is, and I don’t like the idea of contributing to something that would insult another culture. The way I got around this was by separating the story from the setting, just like I ask my readers to do in Holly, The Captain, and Handsome Jack, which supposedly happens in colonial Williamsburg but contains events and characters who never would have actually existed in Colonial Williamsburg. I spent the whole time reading thinking “IF this is true, then…” instead of assuming it was true. And the main bit of good to come of it is that I am now interested to learn more about geishas, but I will do so using more reliable sources.