Book review: ‘Frangipani’ by Celestine Vaite

Next up in my massive stack of books I began but never finished is Frangipani, a novel by Celestine Vaite. I’m operating under a very strict personal rule that I cannot possibly buy any more books until I finish all the novels I have in waiting — and Frangipani has been sitting in my room for more than a year.

Vaite’s story follows Materena, a Tahitian woman who struggles in her relationships with her daughters and two sons. The novel is set on the island and is sprinkled with French sayings and cultural references, but I didn’t have much trouble grappling with them. And I didn’t have much trouble grappling with the book’s “larger meaning,” either — it’s all about mothers and daughters. Materena’s daughter Leilani is free-spirited and strong-willed, usually pretty unwilling to take her mother’s opinions seriously. While Materena is constantly struggling to bestow her womanly wisdom upon Leilani, her daughter is resisting as hard as she can.

In the end, of course, Materena and Leilani reach an understanding of what it means to grow up and let go — of each other, of the past, of their troubles. If this all sounds a bit overdramatic, it actually isn’t. The story is light and airy as an island breeze, weaved as it is with Vaite’s tender voice. The book is told mostly as a string of anecdotes with an underlying plot tying them all together, and this was mostly successful.

That being said, I struggled a bit to submerge myself in the story. While I liked Materena and felt for her as she struggled to be a good mother to her children, a good wife to her husband and a good listener for her friends and family, I felt a little out-of-place as I viewed the setting as a whole. The Tahiti that Vaite describes in her novel (and probably in real life?) is very matriarchal — and the absence of men plays more of a role in the book than the presence of any man, save Leilani’s father Pito and boyfriend Hotu. And while I was enchanted with Materena and her aunties, cousins and mamas and felt the deep bond between them, it was still hard for me to really . . . feel something for them. I did tear up at the ending, but overall I felt the book lacked a certain emotional spark to connect me as a reader.

Two additional books by Vaite follow Materena Mahi and her family, though I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to grab them. Decent as a stand-alone novel, but not really sure how Materena’s tale will stand up as a series. Perhaps we’ll see.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316114669 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg