Worst Book of the Summer: Memoirs of a Geisha

I’m ashamed of myself; usually I read dozens of books over the summer, but this time as September and its association with the end of pleasure reading approaches, I’ve only finished three books. I blame the Song of Ice and Fire series and their near a thousand pages each. But while I cannot think of a title to call the best book of the summer, I can certainly name the worst. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha had been on my reading lists for years. I had heard the story was heartbreakingly beautiful, the language rich, and the movie rendition wasn’t too bad to boot. It also graced the list of Top 100 Books of All Time. Needless to say, I was eager to get my hands on it. As soon as I graduated, I was free; I could read whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted and not worry about writing a paper on it at the end of the semester. Memoirs would be my first novel as a free woman! Halfway through the book, however, my emotions turned for the worst. I was still eager alright, eager to finish the damn book. Frankly, it was a bit boring. For me the most riveting part was the main character, Sayuri’s, petty fight with a rival geisha that could have been taken straight out of the movie Mean Girls. Unfortunately, that problem was dealt with early in the novel, and everything else lacked the pace and excitement that had brought out my inner 14 year old. Although this annoyed me, it didn’t toe the line of enraging me like the next issue did.

I love a good cat fight.

Golden’s novel is often criticized for writing intimately about an exotic culture as an outsider. While I have no problem with this Western perspective on the Eastern world (in fact, I believe this makes it more accessible for readers), I do agree he is an outsider: an outsider to the secret world of women. Now, I’m in no way saying that men should never write through the mind’s eye of women or vice-versa. What I’m trying to get at is that when Golden tackles Sayuri’s emerging womanhood and loss of virginity, what should be an emotional rollercoaster and moment of deep revelation comes across insincere and even hollow.

Let me put it this way:

I was born and raised in a predominantly white Irish Catholic suburb. There I played trombone in an award winning jazz band that was comprised of students from the exact same socio-economic background. I don’t mean to brag, but we were a really good band. We could play the charts perfectly musically and technically, down to the slightest dynamic changes. Yet when we’d go to regional competitions, we always placed behind the inner city schools. But we were so good! What did we do wrong? We didn’t have soul, that’s what. We were stiff, calculating, and no better than swinging robots. When our mentor, an experienced jazz legend, coached us during jazz bootcamp, he would yell, “Loosen up! You play like a bunch of white kids!” But that’s what we were.

Arthur Golden is the pasty, privileged whited kid in a hard swinging world. Only instead of in the jazz circuit he’s in a woman’s world that plays by more intuitive rules. And in order to fit in (which he should be trying to so, since his novel is mostly read by a female audience) he should have got more in touch with his feminine side. Instead a life changing event is brushed over in a few sentences and the rest of the plot is devoted to an improbably and slightly creepy love story.

This is how sad Memoirs of a Geisha made me.

I am in no way revoking Golden’s artistic license, but your middle school creative writing teacher was right: a good author writes about what they know. And dude, a woman’s relationship with her sexuality is not one of them.

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