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FRANGIPANI, Celestine Vaite's first novel to be published in the United States, takes place in Tahiti and centers on a woman named Materena Mahi, tracing her life from young motherhood to when her only daughter is about to pursue her own adventures in life.

The reader will laugh along with Materena as she deals with her man Pito (the father of her children, whom she eventually marries) and watches as their relationship changes through the years. She admits she's a very good listener, with people from all over coming to confide in her. She dispenses advice regularly, but her main concerns are always with her daughter Leilani, part of the new breed of women of Tahiti who are modern and turning their backs on the old ways. It is "old-world clashes with the new" when it comes to Materena and Leilani, but underneath it all there is a lot of love between them.

Each chapter seems to be a chapter out of Materena's life, making FRANGIPANI read almost like a short story collection, but there is a common thread to all these stories. Materena grows from an inexperienced mother to one who can dole out wisdom to people off the street. Actually, she's already dispensing advice starting from the first chapter:

"When a woman doesn't collect her man's pay she gets zero francs because her man goes to the bar with his colleagues to celebrate the end of the week and you know how it is, eh?...Well, Materena is fiu of all this!"

One gets the gist of where Materena is going with her story. She has attitude and does not put up with much. The charm of the novel is the language in which the story is told. Materena's voice is one that is rich in Tahitian culture with a touch of French, and the reader will crave to read more about her life once that last page has been turned.

When Leilani comes into the world, Materena's life is now measured by her daughter and their relationship. Female readers will certainly understand that tenuous bond between mother and daughter, one that can be so close yet at times so fragile. As Leilani grows into a young woman, Materena brags to her friends about how smart, how beautiful, and how stubborn her daughter is.

Readers will laugh with Materena and sigh with her as she recounts her everyday adventures. Her frustrations with Pito, her pride in her children (two sons and a daughter) and her relationships with her in-laws, her mother, and her many cousins, aunts and uncles are told in great detail. Materena lives the life of an old-world woman, but by the end of the book she learns to spread her wings and fly, going from Professional Cleaner (which she was quite proud of) to somewhat of a celebrity.

This is the first of three books by Celestine Vaite to be released in the United States. I for one cannot wait to read more by this talented author. A look into the world of Tahitian women, FRANGIPANI is meant to be a universal story of mothers and daughters and strong women everywhere.

Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton on January 22, 2011

by Célestine Vaite

  • Publication Date: February 7, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316114669
  • ISBN-13: 9780316114660