Excerpt from The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Frangipani Hotel


By Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2014,
    256 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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I don't want to bore you with my own history, with the reasons that I joined the order and the chronicles of my meandering faith; that is not my purpose here. But some background is, I feel, necessary. I sought out Sister Emmanuel during the first year of my novitiate because I was considering leaving the convent. I didn't want to approach Mother Superior for guidance: She was the classic Catholic nightmare, barking after naughty schoolboys with her ruler in hand. Sister Emmanuel was quiet, and from time to time I encountered her taking early morning walks around the garden of the Stations of the Cross. She was a stoop-backed woman with white hair and nut-brown skin crosshatched with wrinkles, and she was always wearing a kind smile and an enormous pair of dark, square sunglasses. I had never seen her without the glasses—she even wore them during Mass—and for this she had acquired secret nicknames like "Sister Kim Jong-il" and "the Terminator" from some of the younger nuns. But to me she seemed—then, at least—to be at peace. Contemplative. Diligent. Devout. In short, she was all that I wished to be, and was failing at being.

I found her on a Saturday in the kitchen, preparing egg rolls to bring to the parish soup kitchen. She had her sleeves rolled up to her elbows and her hands deep in a bowl of minced meat and mushrooms and noodles. It was a bright, cold day, and the sun from the window over the sink silhouetted her dark, hunched form. She looked up when I entered the room, but I couldn't tell if she was surprised to see me or not; her sunglasses, as usual, were perched on her nose. I tried to explain myself rationally and calmly, but there was an involuntary tremble of emotion in my voice. Sister Emmanuel said nothing during my monologue, and continued to mix the egg roll filling while listening to my presentation. But when I trailed silent, having revealed the turbulence in my mind, she removed her hands from the bowl, wiped them on a checked dishcloth, and then folded them in front of her.

For the first time she smiled. "Would it shock you very much," she said, "if I told you that I don't believe in God?"

I hadn't known exactly what to expect, but I knew that it wasn't this. She continued: "I want to help you, but I have no answers. All I have is a story. I've never told it to anyone before and I think it's time. You may take what you like from it; look for a moral if you can. Perhaps the story will give you something, though you must be careful lest you give yourself to it instead

And as she told it to me she began to roll the filling in paper-thin wrappers, her voice rising and falling with the movements of her hands.

I will start at the very beginning—the beginning we all were taught as children.

Thousands of years ago, a dragon prince and a fairy spirit fell in love. They married, and the fairy bore one hundred eggs, which hatched into one hundred beautiful children. However, the dragon lived beneath the sea, while the fairy's home was in the mountains, and they could not be together. Fifty of the children went to live with their mother in the high hills of the North, and fifty of the children went south to the coast, where they learned to fish and make boats while their father watched over them from his palace beneath the waves. These children were the first people of Vietnam.

There is a place very close to the center of my country where the green fingers of the southern mountains almost touch the sea. The water there used to be the loveliest in all of the country—warm, clear, and teeming with fish. The buildings of the fishing hamlet by the bay were painted pink and green and turquoise, and the crumbling remains of a Cham temple overlooked it all from the hills. On the outskirts, where the town began to give way to jungle, in a yellow, colonial house, Vu Nguyen's wife was giving birth. Huong came from a long line of beautiful and tempestuous women, and she thrashed and let out long, guttural screams while Mrs. Dang, the midwife, tried to calm her. Vu was pacing out by a bamboo grove in the yard, trying to ignore the sounds from inside and occasionally looking up at the rainclouds curdling in the sky. It was the beginning of the monsoon season.

Excerpted from The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. Copyright © 2014 by Violet Kupersmith. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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