“In typical Filipino fashion, my aunt expressed her love not through words of encouragement or affectionate embraces, but through food. Food was how she communicated. Food was how she found her place in the world. When someone rejected her food, they were really rejecting her heart.”
Have you ever been to a Filipino bakery? If you have, you know that they, not Disneyland, deserve to be named “The Happiest Place(s) on Earth” — the sweet smell of freshly-made pandesal, little towers of hopia, and bright splashes of purple in various ube desserts are almost unmatched in their ability to bring me comfort and joy.
Despite ARSENIC AND ADOBO being a murder-mystery, with dead bodies and vicious attacks galore, Mia P. Mansala’s food writing was so evocative and immersive that the smell of a Filipino bakery never left my mind as I read. (I may have come to find out who committed the murder, but I left with a recipe for ube crinkle cookies.) I bring up Manansala’s food writing because it was one of my favorite aspects of this book — I had numerous issues with the plot and mystery itself, but the way she writes about dishes like almondigas and mamón was truly stunning, with entire lines dedicated to describing a food’s appearance, scent, texture, and taste.
This care and attention made clear that, to our protagonist, Lila Macapagal, Filipino food is more than just sustenance. Like for Michelle Zauner (Japanese Breakfast), the author of CRYING IN H MART, cultural food is a deep source of comfort to Lila — whether she’s making it herself or eating it, it’s practically its own language, grounding her and re-connecting her with her roots and flooding her with feelings of family, home, and safety.
Since she’s returned to her hometown of Shady Palms, Illinois after a disastrous break up with her fiancé, Lila may no longer need Filipino food to remind her of her physical home, but she could definitely use the comfort it brings. Not only is she embarrassed to be back in her hometown after working so hard to get away from it, but she’s also trying to help her aunt (tita) and grandma (lola) with their restaurant, Tita Rosie’s Kitchen, which is beloved but financially struggling. The restaurant’s situation is only made worse when Derek Winter, a food critic and Lila’s ex-boyfriend from high school, drops dead while dining there, shutting the restaurant down until it can be inspected and making Lila the lead suspect in a homicide investigation.
As the police learn about Lila and Derek’s dating history and discover (planted) evidence in Lila’s locker at the restaurant, she realizes that she’s in real danger of being charged with crimes she didn’t commit. Deciding that her only option is to investigate the murder herself, she and her best friend, Adeena, set out to prove her innocence.
Being a cozy mystery, ARSENIC AND ADOBO is definitely not a mystery/thriller cut from the same cloth as books like SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn or AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie — it’s not nearly as rigorous in its accuracy (in terms of legal proceedings) or in establishing scenarios that feel grounded in reality; there were multiple points where I was left thinking, “In what world would this actually happen?”
But that’s because cozies are specifically meant to be less “step-by-step” than other mystery/thrillers, with violence largely occurring “off-stage,” and are usually set in small, tight-knit communities, which means protagonists often have an easier time collecting information and investigating than they would in reality. Since this book was my first cozy, I didn’t know to expect this, and I think it would be helpful to the rest of my review if I quickly listed some of the typical conventions of a cozy mystery, many of which this book adopts.
As outlined by Cozy-mystery.com, these include:
- “The crime-solver in a cozy mystery is usually a woman who is an amateur sleuth.” (Lila)
- “Cozy mystery usually takes place in a small town or village. The small size of the setting makes it believable that all the suspects know each other.” (Shady Palms)
- “There is usually at least one very knowledgeable and nosy (and of course, very reliable!) character in the book who is able to fill in all of the blanks, thus enabling the amateur sleuth to solve the case.” (Lila’s ninangs [godmothers] April, Mae, and June)
- “Although the cozy mystery sleuth is usually not a medical examiner, detective, or police officer, a lot of times her best friend, husband, or significant other is. This makes a very convenient way for her to find out things that she would otherwise not have access to.” (Numerous cousins and friends in law, law enforcement, and the medical field)
The potential strengths of a cozy mystery are made apparent in this book’s warmth and themes of community and family. Whenever disaster strikes, Lila’s friends, non-blood-related cousins, and ninangs come to the rescue, a well of love and devotion constantly overflowing. She’s even able to turn to and reconnect with old friends and rivals from high school; the fact that most of them are able to help her in her investigation makes it feel like an entire community is banding around her to prove her innocence, resulting in a read that’s more heartfelt and comforting than it is disturbing or violent.
Additionally, I really enjoyed the small-town setting because I was able to connect with Lila’s complex feelings surrounding her hometown, from feeling frustrated with being called “selfish” for moving away after graduating high school to feeling guilty because she does feel selfish for moving away. For diaspora and immigrant kids, it’s never as straightforward as simply going away for college — we tend to feel (or are made to feel) like we’re abandoning our families, leaving them behind for the sake of our own self-discovery; we also often feel resentment toward this guilt, wondering why it’s so wrong for us to want to physically escape our families’ sky-high expectations and create lives for ourselves.
In one scene that particularly spoke to me, Lila is reflecting on her decision to leave her hometown after graduation, and she thinks:
“But it got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Where I started having panic attacks when I thought about my future here. Why was it selfish to try to save myself? Even now, the thought of staying here forever felt like a hand squeezing me tighter and tighter—this phantom hand molding me into the shape everyone else wanted me to be.”
I also loved the Filipino American representation in this book, with Manansala allowing her main and side characters to be simultaneously smart, complicated, nurturing, protective, overbearing, and problematic, just as real people are. I’m not Filipino American myself, so I clearly can’t speak to this representation as a Filipino American person can, so take what I say here with a grain of salt! But I did grow up with many close Filipino friends whose families treated me with nothing but love and care, whether they were feeding me the most wonderful food or gently teasing me about gaining weight, and I cherished getting to recognize aspects of their beloved titas and lolas in this book.
But while ARSENIC AND ADOBO has moments that allow its small-town setting to shine and work in its favor, this book could be frustratingly inaccurate in its depictions of legal proceedings and crime investigation. To avoid spoilers, I’ll be vague, but there were multiple crimes that the police outright accused Lila of committing when, in reality, they never would’ve been able to charge (or even legitimately suspect!) her — at best, they only had circumstantial evidence against her; at worst, she had an air-tight alibi with numerous witnesses.
(MINOR SPOILERS) This isn’t the only area in which this book could be wildly unrealistic. There are several instances in this book during which I literally annotated, “This would never happen,” including:
- Lila suffering a serious dental injury while eating an expired biscotti Kevin, the manager of the coffee shop, gave her. Instead of being upset over her injury and stressing over it, she took it as an opportunity to demand that Kevin gives Adeena, her best friend who works at the coffee shop, a huge opportunity, and says, “Oh, and I might need her to sneak out a little early for the next couple of weeks without you docking her pay.” This would never happen.
- The lead detective hounding Lila casually informs her that the police have been tailing her and have her under surveillance. This would never happen; a cop would never tell a lead suspect that they’re being watched.
- Right after a body is found (as in, within an hour or so) two direct relatives of the deceased arrive at Lila and Tita Rosie’s house to spend the night. This would never happen; at the absolute least, the police would be questioning and taking statements from them, and they would need to sort out logistical issues surrounding the body.
Lila’s emotional reactions to the murders and crimes in this book were also strange enough that I, and several other Goodreads reviewers I found (Jen and Addie), took note of them. As Jen phrased it, Lila was very cavalier about the constant violence she was exposed to, as well as the fact that the police consider her to be their main suspect.
For example: in one scene, Lila unknowingly walks onto the scene of a violent crime and discovers the unconscious and bleeding body of someone she knew well. After giving a witness statement to the police, she proceeds to drive to the coffee shop to see Adeena, completely forget to tell her about the attack, and spend the rest of the afternoon baking in the café’s kitchen. Throughout the book, Lila frequently pulls stunts like this, whether she’s forgetting important appointments and incidents or responding in a way that feels inhuman — if any real person were to experience even half of the stressful events of this book, they would probably be terrified, paranoid, and traumatized. But Lila? Mostly, she doesn’t seem to care.
(MINOR SPOILERS) In Goodreads reviewer Jen’s words, “The lack of concern from characters also extends to how seriously (or not) they take what becomes multiple felony charges. This was especially puzzling to me because the author clearly tried to make sure she had a diverse group of characters (yay representation! Which is a huge plus for this book), and also mentioned issues the family had with police in the past. I understand if the author wanted to keep the tone lighter and not get too political, but it ended up feeling off and adding to the lack of realism.”
This book also isn’t the type of murder-mystery in which the characters enter genuinely confusing, scary, and twisted situations; instead, it’s the kind where the protagonist is unable to put the pieces together because she can be frustratingly incompetent. Lila asks the same questions over and over again, and despite us being handed an important piece of information at the 29% mark, she can’t figure out how to work it into the case even though the reader is able to figure it out right away. I’m not a big fan of mystery/thrillers in which the reader is always a few steps ahead of the main character; I prefer when I feel like I’m solving the case alongside them, feeling surprised and scared in the same moments they are.
In light of these issues, ARSENIC AND ADOBO’s saving grace (in my eyes) is the fact that it’s wildly entertaining — so entertaining and funny that I gave it a 3-star rating rather than a 2, despite all my complaints. The last 10% in particular absolutely flew by, but throughout the book, I was constantly caught up in gorgeous food writing, hilarious banter between Lila, Adeena, the ninangs, and Lola Flor, and Lila’s sleuthing, no matter how implausible it was.
I adored how Filipino this book is, with all its sayings, cultural references, and emphasis on family relationships, and loved how diverse Manansala’s larger cast of characters is — our main characters are all various shades of Brown and Yellow, with Adeena being a Pakistani Muslim lesbian and a love interest being half-Korean. I think Manansala has a lot of potential and has proven herself to be a clearly gifted storyteller, and I’ll most likely pick up the next book in the series, crossing my fingers that her plotlines become more grounded in reality while looking forward to reading descriptions of lumpia and suman.