Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel: Stories, Reviewed by Deborah Maness

Frangipani Hotel
Violet Kupersmith captures the beauty, pain and mysticism experienced by Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants in her book, The Frangipani Hotel: Stories.   Having spent a year in Vietnam on a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, Kupersmith provides the reader with an immersion in the culture.   The nine stories in her collection depict immigrants’ reluctance to share painful experiences, which the author may have witnessed in her mother, who had been a refugee from that country.  Kupersmith expresses empathy for the pain experienced by victims of a violent regime.  

The immigrants in these stories all settled in Houston, Texas.   The opening narrative, “Boat Story,” sets the tone for the book.  A grandson has come to his grandmother’s home and wants her to share a story about how she escaped from North Vietnam for his class report. The child requests a story that will earn an “A+.”  Initially, the grandmother tries to distract the child, but he will not be deterred. So, she tells him a fantastical and horrific story of a wedding storm. She tells him about Communists chasing her out of Vietnam and Thai pirates raiding her boat on the South China Sea.  The grandchild is disappointed, because he believes the story to be made up and, therefore, inappropriate for his history report. His grandmother replies, “The first rule of the country we come from is that it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want” (ch. 1).

Another story in Kupersmith’s collection, “Reception,” provides the title for her book. A 1973 photo of two brothers hangs in the Frangipani Hotel. Owned by one family since the 1930’s, it currently belongs to the only surviving brother, “Current Uncle,” who describes himself as “the luckiest” of “my brothers” (ch. 2). Now, cousins actually run the hotel while the aunt and grandmother clean and mind the lobby.  When a lovely lady appears in a room desiring water at the same time that a rich American checks into the hotel, interesting events occur. 

All of the stories include a mystical or superstitious element that gives the reader a taste of ancient Vietnamese legends.  For example, the elderly calligrapher in “One Finger” is haunted by a girl he killed when he was a young man on patrol during wartime (ch. 8).  In “Turning Back,” a young woman befriends a homeless man who shares a personal legend that leaves her running for her life (ch. 7).

Another theme alluded to throughout the book is the loss of tradition among members of the younger generation.  In “Descending Dragon,” Mrs. Nguyen feels abandoned by her daughter who only visits twice a year (ch. 9). In “Skin and Bones,” Mrs. Tran sends her unappreciative daughters, Thuy and Kieu, to spend the summer with their grandmother in Vietnam to experience the beauty of Saigon and to get to know their roots.  They hate Vietnam.  These grandchildren dislike their culture, native language, and cuisine (ch. 3).

The Frangipani Hotel gives a variety of perspectives. Kupersmith provides the views of current Vietnamese citizens reminiscing about the past, Vietnamese immigrants assimilating into American life and wanting to forget the past, and the descendants of immigrants returning to Vietnam to search for the past. Kupersmith also provides the reader who is unfamiliar with the Vietnamese culture an interesting glimpse at the repercussions of the Vietnam War.  She preserves ancient legends and superstitions for readers who might never discover them without her literary introduction.

Kupersmith, Violet. The Frangipani Hotel, Stories. New York: Random House, 2014. Kindle file.