Chiyo was the youngest daughter of a fisherman and had lived carefree and simply until her life is wrenched apart; when her mother grew ill she met a man that would change her life forever. He kidnapped her and took her away from the family she knew and loved, and she found herself in an okiya home with a stern "Mother" and "Granny" who beat her and make her work as a servant, All of this in hopes that one day she will become a Geisha. She starts going to school, learning how to pour tea properly, how to dance, how to play instruments and sing. A Geisha is an entertainer, an artisan, a mistress, a princess. Throughout her childhood she is overshadowed by the successful but cruel Hotsumomo, the current Geisha in her home. Hotsumomo puts one obstacle after another in front of Chiyo's feat until she feels certain to fail. Only with the help of Hostumom's worst enemy, Mameha, does Chiyo learn how to stand on her own.
Golden paints a beautiful depiction of Japanese life in the 1930's; his book is vibrant in its description, from the elegant and complicated komotos the Geisha wore to the complexity of his characters. As Chiyo becomes a Geisha her name changes to Sayuri, and over time we see the character transform with her name. As a child she still had the rough edges of a fisherman's daughter and the longing to return home to her old life, even at one point trying to run away to find her sister and return home. Over the years, as she is constantly bullied and destroyed by Hotrumomo, she develops the will to fight for becoming a Geisha, and she becomes one: elegant, graceful, and beautiful.
The romance between herself and the Chairman develops slowly and plays a key role in the story, as his kindness towards her led to her desire to become a Geisha. But his business partner, Nabu, shows an interest in her immediately and in Japanese culture two friends cannot have the same Geisha at any point. Although she silently feels for the Chairman, she is resigned to have Mameha and Mother matchmaker her to whomever they will.
Not all of the romance is pleasant; the book shows some heartbreaking truth about Geisha life. While her sister was kidnapped and turned into a prostitute, Sayuri had the chance to become an elegant Geisha, but as one she could not marry. At sixteen her virginity was sold at a high price, and many times she was forced to give into a man's demands against her will. They have arranged dannas, or husbands, who pay for a good deal of their expenses and clothes in exchange for a romance. Then the Geisha can be free of her enormous debt, can have her own clothes and not rely on the resources of the Okiya, and can have relative freedom.
Golden's characters are believable and each plays an important role in Sayuri's life. The story is driven by the daily human interaction, conflict and romance in Kyoto, as each character is motivated by greed or lust or revenge. As this book leads us through Sayrui's life and we sympathize with her sorrows and success, we discover what drives her to become a Geisha as she discovers what being a Geisha means to her.