Book Review

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia Manansala

Lila Macapagal has moved back to Shady Palms after a hella-bad breakup, and is trying to help her aunt with her restaurant, which is in financial trouble. When Lila’s ex-boyfriend drops dead during his meal with his stepfather, the restaurant’s landlord, Lila becomes the prime suspect. She decides to investigate the nefarious ex to find out who really killed him.

Lila is…not great at detecting. Lila’s investigation mainly rests on her going to different restaurants, asking questions ineptly, eating a lot of different cuisines and describing them at length, then lather, rinse, repeat. Or maybe, wash dishes, dry, then repeat at a different restaurant.

Here is an important note for prospective readers: if it will bother you to read a mystery wherein the people who are suspected of murder allow themselves to be questioned multiple times without their attorney present, even after said attorney, who is a friend of Lila’s, tells them to stop doing that, you might want to skip this one. I kept reading because I wanted to know what had happened and who had done what to whom, but I also wanted to yell at the characters frequently.

There was a palpable absence of grief, too, which bothered me the longer I read. You know how in some stories, a character will die and there’s no real mourning, or any emotional fallout for the family and friends? It’s like the dead character dissolves instantly, like a vanquished NPC in a video game? Yeah. That.

In this story, there is very little emotional reaction to any of the crimes committed, and that lack of emotional resonance gets weirder and weirder as the plot progresses. At one point near the end, a tertiary character makes a decision that absolutely baffled me in context, to the point where I thought I’d missed a chapter, but it was toward the end, so it was one more shrug in a long, long line of them.

Details that are spoilery:

Near the end of the book, the mother of the Original Dead Ex Boyfriend (Who Was Unfortunately Terrible) goes to her son’s wake, then comes home to find her husband, stepdad to Original Dead Guy, murdered in their kitchen. Freaked out by All the Murder in the house, she decides to…stay at Lila’s family’s home.

You know, the same Lila and family who are the primary suspects in the murder of her son. And no one thinks this is weird.

The inconsistencies both legal and emotional reached a point where, in order to keep reading, I had to accept that aside from the food and the culinary descriptions, this story was not connected to a reality I recognized. But that disconnect between the seriousness of the events of the book (murder, assault, poisoning, planting of evidence) and the almost indifference of the characters to what had happened around them was puzzling and upsetting, because it was difficult to reconcile the events of the book with the world in which I was reading it.

Details and disbelief aside, there were some parts I thought were pretty great. Food is not just food. Different dishes and the serving of them is a complex code that reveals so much about cultural variations in hospitality. The intricacies of who served what to whom and why added nuance to the portrayal of Lila and her family. Because Lila’s aunt runs a restaurant, there’s a LOT of food, but there’s also dinner parties, welcoming new business owners with food, plus baking and coffee experiments that made my eyes roll back in my head wishing the cakes were real. In a book titled Arsenic and Adobo, expect food. SO MUCH. The portrayal of food is not just a character, but builds the characters, too. That part is terrific.

The mystery itself pales in comparison to the scenes where Lila and her aunties are together. Those conversations are hilarious. The mystery is somewhat repetitive, though I confess I didn’t recognize the culprit working behind the scenes until nearly the end. I also appreciated that the potential seeds of future books and future conflicts were planted in subtle ways, such as the shifting and sometimes tense relationship between Lila and her best friend, who have a history that isn’t explained in full. As I mentioned, Lila herself is not a very good detective, so any progress often relies on coincidence and the sharp observations of her best friend.

I had a pretty good time reading this mystery at the beginning, in part because of the culinary detail, the community of family and friends, and the dead guy, Who Was Indeed Terrible. The initial scenes from Lila’s perspective were immediately engaging. Lila may be a very inconsistent and inept investigator, but she is a fun person to listen to.

But the longer I read, the more frustrations piled up, and not even the intricacies of family, cuisine, baking, and solving the mystery could fully distract me from the WAIT WHAT parts of the plot. If you like a culturally vibrant and delicious world with an unpredictable cast for your cozy mysteries, you might like this. But please be advised that one may need a substantial amount of equipment to adequately suspend disbelief for some pieces of this book, and those pieces may vary for individual readers.

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Arsenic and Adobo by Mia Manansala

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  1. 1
    Lisa F says:
    +2

    Oof, that’s too bad, I’ve been looking forward to reading it and the suspension of disbelief needed to do so sounds pretty high. Good work, Sarah!

  2. 2
    Liz Stevens says:
    +6

    Thank you for reviewing this one, I had it on hold but I’m too old to read books that require that much work.

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