Toxic and delicious food

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Arsenic and Adobo” is the first part in the Tita Rosie Mystery series of Filipina-American writer Mia Manansala. Published by Berkley for Penguin Random House, it was touted by Buzzfeed as one of the highly anticipated novels for the year.

The buzz seems to be spot-on, for this is a charming and well-written mystery. It is brisk and breezy, with a back story that would beguile our angst-ridden teenagers. When Lila Macapagal moves back home to recover from a terrible breakup with her high school boyfriend Derek Winter, her life seems to be following all the typical rom-com tropes. She is tasked with saving her Tita Rosie’s failing Filipino restaurant. Moreover, she has to deal with a group of matchmaking aunties who shower her with unconditional love – and sharp judgment. The aunts are named April, May and June – and they are called the Calendar Crew.

But when a nasty food critic (who happens to be her ex-boyfriend) drops dead moments after having a quarrel and lunch at Lila’s restaurant, her life quickly changes. From a bittersweet Nora Ephron romp, the novel turns into an Agatha Christie case. Well, almost.

Detective Park is the lead investigator in the murder; ironically, he is also a very good friend of Tita Rosie. The detective and the cops treat Lila as if she is the one and only suspect. She is also pressured by the shady landlord whose scheme is to finally kick the Macapagal family out and resell the storefront. Thus, Lila is left with no choice but to conduct her own investigation. Armed with the nosy auntie network, her barista best bud, her cousin in the town hall and her trusted dachshund, Longganisa, Lila takes on this case. But soon, she finds herself in the cross hairs of the investigation.

There is a gallery of characters here enough to keep you interested and chuckling all throughout the night. Lola Flor is the grand matriarch, an excellent cook but not shrewd enough to run a business. When the cooking has been done, she retires not to her bedroom to rest but to the casino. Tita Rosie got the culinary skills of Lola Flor, along with her soft head for business and knack for overfeeding her customers and her guests. But for all of them, family is first, and this mantra is repeated throughout the novel, especially when their lives – and their restaurant – unravels.

Clearly, then, the family is both anchor and burden, whether the family is Filipino, Korean or Latino. As Lila observes of her best friend: “How she said that without a hint of sarcasm or bitterness, I had no idea. There was more than a touch of sadness, though.”

The novel deftly moves from past to present, from Lila’s relationship with Derek to her fraught life at present. “I wanted to go to Chicago for school. He wanted me to stay in Shady Palms, where we’d get married, have kids and live blandly ever after.” She is young and filled with dreams, to unroot herself from the womb of community and live in the big city with its horizon of possibilities.

Detective Park’s brother is Dr. Jae Park, “an Asian Adonis” who works as the newly-resident dentist of the town. Lila likes him, but finds him dense. As she said, “The men in my life were denser than my grandmother’s rice cakes.” There is also the good-looking and bright lawyer and his sister, who is the best friend of Lila. All of them have meddlesome Asian families, who poke their noses into the children’s lives in the guise of concern. They all ring true to life.

The perfect Asian template is also satirized in this novel. Dr. Jae Park, the dentist, said, “I wasn’t cutthroat enough for academic and didn’t want the high stakes of being a medical doctor.”

There are several possible suspects, all of them the owners of the restaurants that Derek dissed in his toxic food reviews. There is Stan’s Diner, an all-American restaurant owned by Stan Kosta and his wife, Martha. There is also the Japanese restaurant owned by Mr. Sato and his wife, Yuki, who has an affair with Derek. The El Gato Negro is a Mexican restaurant run by Elena and her mom, and whose owners are hounded out of town by racism. There is also the restaurant owned by George and Nettie, and then we finally have Tita Rosie’s Filipino restaurant, the newest kid in the multicultural block.

The pages turn and the author knows how to tell a good story. The tone is moody and melancholy, when the novel deals with Lila’s desire to leave behind the small hometown of Shady Palms. Then it perks up and becomes a smart and sassy novel that reminds you of the best sit-com and rom-com combined into one. There are also dark issues here, like the opiod crisis, blackmail and multiple murders. The author even has a caveat at the beginning of the novel, dealing with the triggers that might cause the readers.

The minor weakness of the novel is that the characters’ reactions could have been more subtle, especially those who are considered suspects. Their action and reaction sometimes remind of a villain in a television series who would raise her eyebrows up her forehead, or whose sharp eyes would slide to the right after she has done a dark deed.

I cannot relate more stories, since this is a whodunit and a mystery thriller. But in the last part of the novel, you would find a wonderful list of recipes aside from adobo, which is now famous in the United States. You have recipes for ube crinkles and assorted Filipino culinary delights, which I hope has been kitchen-tested.

Mia Manansala’s next novel is called “Homicide and Halo-Halo.” From the promise shown by this first novel, the second outing will likely be another delicious treat.

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Email: danton.lodestar@gmail.com. Danton Remoto’s novel, ‘Riverrun,’ has just been published by Penguin Random House South East Asia.

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