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Frangipani    by CÚlestine Hitiura Vaite order for
by CÚlestine Hitiura Vaite
Order:  USA  Can
Back Bay, 2006 (2005)
Softcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Frangipani is the gentle story of professional cleaner Materena Mahi, 'the best listener' in Tahiti, and her strong-willed daughter Leilani. Throughout, the author shares a charming folk wisdom that reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith's delightful No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Vaite shows us a woman's struggle to get hold of some of her man's pay before it's spent on 'a drink for les copains'; the confrontations that occur between two enemy families, usually because of an implied slur - 'while the men are at war, the women stay at home and pray'; who should be told 'a secret for the grave'; what a mother tells a daughter in her 'Welcome into Womanhood' talk; and the rituals that attend the birth of a child. There are ceremonies to introduce the newborn to all the extended family, even to the dead in the cemetery, and the planting of a tree to reflect the child's well-being - Materena plants a frangipani for Leilani.

Materena loves Leilani but often struggles to understand this daughter who questions everything and often 'makes her feel like she's stupid' - there's an amusing sequence in which a foreign (popa'a) encyclopedia saleswoman is interrogated mercilessly by the child, truly earning her commission. It takes time for Materena to understand that 'it takes courage for a fruit to fall far from her tree', which is what her daughter eventually does. Along the way, readers learn that one should never mock a Tahitian girl's mother, and have the pleasure of seeing how the professional cleaner's storytelling gift comes into its own.

Having spent time in Tahiti, I enjoyed returning to its island ambience, particularly so in the company of one who grew up there, and who paints so clearly its rich culture, based on extended family and community. Overall, in Frangipani, Vaite shows us the strength of women, and the lifelong love between a mother and daughter, despite inevitable conflicts.

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