Book review: Arsenic and Adobo

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The book in one sentence: A Scooby-Doo vibe murder mystery embroiling a millennial in her annoying ex-boyfriend’s mess amid attempts to get her life together back in her small Chicago hometown.

Read if: You want something fun and light-hearted, with a mix of mystery, comedy, and romance.

Book length: Approximately 250 pages

Initial impressions

The first thing that drew me to this book was its title and author’s name. I have rare encounters with contemporary fiction written by Filipino authors, although I do feel like this has been changing recently. In the past five to ten years, every book I’ve found by a Filipino author tends to be written by a university professor about some niche, arcane topic in history or psychology, or cookbooks. Whether that’s accurate or a result of my choice in bookstores, I can’t be certain.

Arsenic and Adobo is a short, sweet, and cozy mystery novel. Lila Macapagal returns to her small Chicago hometown after several life plans are thwarted, both in the spheres of career and relationships. She licks her wounds under the wings of her mischievous but well-meaning aunties—until one day, she literally watches her ex-boyfriend keel over and die.

Character commentary

Lila Macapagal is funny and overinvolved, typical traits I am fond of in heroines. Her fierce loyalty to her family and her friends made her loveable. It balanced her neurotic tendencies, which is necessary when you are trying to clear your name and get your life in order.

Lila’s band of mischievous aunties was a little muddled for me. I liked the idea, but I had a hard time distinguishing them from one another, and eventually they all just became one character for me. I wish Manansala had spent a little bit more time telling us about each of these aunties.

Plot thoughts

What I enjoyed most about this book was its homage to the Filipino immigrant experience, complete with the rural hometown, Asian friends (and more), and the descriptive scenes of food, restaurants, and the people preparing and eating them. It made me warm, fuzzy, at home, and definitely gave me a deeper connection to Lila and her motives. If you’re not into food, are you really even Filipino?

The plot twists were not novel or exciting by any means. The big reveal also fell a little flat for me. This one felt very linear, and I was not too invested in discovering who the culprit was. I could not decide if I cared more about the exoneration of our main character, or about discovering the antagonist’s identity and motives. The stakes between both did not seem as deeply connected as they could have been; in some ways, I felt as if I were following two separate plotlines. If I were to compare it to Lucy Foley’s The Paris Apartment, there is a much greater buildup of tension and anxiety prior to the big reveal in The Paris Apartment.

There was also one character connected to Lila whose major flaw was left unanswered. This character’s debilitating issue was introduced early in the book, which I had bookmarked as a clue and something to pay attention to as I progressed through the novel. It was left completely unaddressed. It offered no greater contribution to the characters or plot in any way, which was disappointing since it piqued my interest.

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