Received this as a BookCrossing book from an online friend, and I’m pretty sure that I never would have read it otherwise. It turned out to be pretty good, though.
I’m not wild about storytelling frames, and I went back and forth on this one. For most of the book it was bothering me, but as she enters the upheavals of WWII, there was something a little reassuring about it. Then again, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Aside from the frame, there were some things I really liked and others I really didn’t. It’s a deeply anti-feminist book, in a way. Namely: It seems to me to be a book about how cruel women can be to each other, and how far above it all men are. You might say that that’s inherent in the content, but I don’t necessarily think that it is. There aren’t any real bonds among the girls/women in this book, other than the one counterexample of the protagonist and Mameha. Every other female-female relationship is based on greed, suspicion, revenge, desperation, or outright cruelty. The relationship between men and women, on the other hand, was probably dictated by content. Though it would have been nice to see expectations overturned at least a little bit. The protagonist spends her whole life waiting for a man to save her. Save her from what? Mostly, it seems, from having to live her own life.
Which brings me to my biggest complaint about the book: Does Chiyo/Sayuri ever actually do anything proactive to further her own cause? I can only think of one thing, and she completely bungles that in a way that any second-grader would have known to avoid. Other than that, she spends the length of the novel as a leaf on the wind, while everyone around her—geisha and non-geisha alike—is working to create some kind of life for him or herself. Part of what bothered me about the frame was that I knew she was going to come out all right in the end, and frankly I didn’t see why she should. I kept waiting for her to do something, and kept getting disappointed.
OK, so enough about what I didn’t like. I did enjoy the book, believe it or not. Mameha was interesting, as were several other minor characters. But mostly, Golden is quite a writer. There are a couple of spots in the book where the protagonist remembers back to other times in her life, and at those spots I became really aware of just how well the author had described those other times. I could really see and hear everything, both large and small details. That takes some real talent, I think, and some real work. He did a hell of a job.