By Ekta R. Garg
April 2, 2014
Rated: Bookmark it!
A young man meets a mysterious woman in his place of employment, and she alters his perception of reality. A truck driver gives a young boy a ride and discovers that his passenger’s motives don’t include gratitude. A young woman helps an elderly gentleman, only to discover that he lives a secret life. Violet Kupersmith gives all of her characters the background of the Vietnam War in her enriching debut with her short story collection The Frangipani Hotel.
The collection opens with the charming “Boat Story,” a conversation between a grandmother and her grandchild about the grandmother’s migration to the new world. “Guests” lets readers peek into the life of a woman working in the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City; she interviews people requesting visas to and dual citizenship with the States. A poet, a calligrapher, and a guitarist come together for their weekly meeting, only to discover that one of them has hidden a secret for many years in “One-Finger.” In “Reception,” the story that gives the collection its name, the main character meets an uninvited guest in the hotel that his family owns and where he works; he spends several days trying to keep her a secret while simultaneously trying to discover her identity.
Kupersmith shares in these stories and the five others in the book her Vietnamese background. Her grandmother shared folk tales and stories of ghosts with Kupersmith who, in turn, used those folk tales and ghost stories to provide the bare bones for her work. The result: stories that give readers the opportunity to learn about another culture while maintaining the universality of life situations.
All of the stories contain treasures of Vietnam’s culture: the street vendor who sells one character buns from a cart; the elderly mother expecting her daughter to visit in the nursing home on Lunar New Year; the man who calls an attractive woman “little sister.” Amid these gems of another country, however, Kupersmith gives readers plenty of room to feel comfortable. A young woman does what she can to avoid a family wedding with annoying relatives. A nun mentors a novitiate by sharing her own weaknesses. A girlfriend worries that her boyfriend’s ex-lovers will lure him away. Kupersmith uses these situations and many more to relate to readers and offer them common ground.
I highly recommend The Frangipani Hotel for anyone who enjoys well-written prose. Clearly Kupersmith’s talent has only begun to stretch itself. Readers can pore over her stories several times and find something new on every read. For those people who enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, make room on your bookshelves for Violet Kupersmith and The Frangipani Hotel.