Sweet City Woman

I’ve been making an effort over the past few years to get outside of my reading comfort zone and delve into books and writers and subgenres of crime fiction that I’ve sadly been neglecting over the course of sixty years of living on this weird planet. I’ve always been grateful that I developed a love of reading when I was very young; I was set on this path very young and one of the great pleasures of life, I have found, is curling up with a good book. I’m never bored, because there’s always something to read, and I never go anywhere without a book to read if I have to wait and pass time–whether it’s traveling or getting my car worked on or the doctor’s office or anything. (I have regrettably developed a social media/on-line default in those instances; I’m working on breaking that hideous habit…there’s nothing ever on social media that ever needs an immediate exposure or response by any means, and I hate that we’ve all become so addicted to our phones that we prefer to stare at a small screen rather than interact with the world…or get lost in a world created by a truly gifted writer.) I have very limited reading time (if I had my way I would spend at least half of every day reading a book–and even if I did that I don’t think I would ever really clear my TBR pile), and so I should be certain to utilize every bit of down time that I have inside the pages of a book.

Hmmm…kind of veered away from my original point, didn’t I?

Anyway, several years ago I decided to embark on reading sub-genres I usually don’t default to within the umbrella of crime writing, and two of the biggest gaps in my reading were traditional mysteries and writers of color, so I made it a point to stop defaulting to books by straight white people. It actually makes me a bit ashamed that I had to make a point of doing so; my own internal subconscious biases needed to be dragged out of my head by the roots, and while I am ashamed it took me so long to do this, I am so glad that I did. I’ve discovered so much rich and wonderful writing by amazing writers from communities that we as a society and culture have failed for so long…I feel like I’m becoming a better person and a more nuanced reader than I’ve ever been, and as someone who’s always prided himself on being a discerning reader, correcting my failings in my reading choices was certainly long overdue.

And what a marvelous time I had in Coral Beach, getting to know Miriam Quiñones-Smith in Raquel V. Reyes’ wonderful Mango, Mambo, and Murder.

“¡Basta, Alma! I told you I’m not doing the show.” I accentuated each word with the knife I held in my hand before I stabbed the packing tape and sliced open box number five of forty-eight.

“You are perfect for it. And come on, Miriam, what else are you doing?”

I narrowed my eyes and glared at my best friend, Alma. “¿Qué es esto?” I waved my hand like a hostess showing someone to their table. “Is this house going to unpack itself?”

“Porfa, this is not going to take all week. The cooking spot is next Friday. Today is Tuesday. You have a week and a half. It’s a short cooking demo on a morning show.” Alma shook her pinched hand like a stereotypical Italian grandmother. Except, of course, she wasn’t Italian, and neither was I. We’re Cuban American. Both cultures talked with their hands. Or, in my case, with whatever was in my hands at the moment.

I crumpled the New York Post page that wrapped a chipped green dinner plate. Before placing it on the stack that was building in the cupboard of my new Florida home, I shook the plate like a tambourine, “But I don’t cook!”

Representation matters, Raquel said as part of her poignant and moving and impassioned acceptance speech when she won the Lefty Award at Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque a few weeks ago, and while I’ve always known the truth of that two-word sentence, it’s been resonating with me a lot since the Left banquet. The fifth season of Elité and Netflix’s wonderful Heartstopper reminded me, very deeply and emotionally, how much carefully crafted stories about young gay men would have impacted my much younger gay self; it cannot be said enough how many unfortunate queer kids are isolated and feel very much alone in the world.

From page one, Raquel throws her readers headlong into the life of her heroine, a Cuban-American woman named Miriam who fell in love and married a white man; they have a young son Manny who is, along with Roberto, her husband (his name is Robert Smith, but she calls him Roberto affectionately, which I absolutely loved), the center of her life. Her parents have retired to the Dominican Republic, and despite being raised in Miami, she went north for college and fell in love, ironically, with an Anglo from a suburb of Miami–or at the very least a very elite (and very white) bedroom community for greater Miami, Coral Shores. Miriam is an interrupted-academic: her field of study is food anthropology, with a particular emphasis on how colonialism and the Caribbean diaspora affected the development of foods, cooking, and how from one Latinx culture to another, the basics veered into different directions (it actually sounds fascinating) based on the region and cultural adjustments. Her best friend, Alma, is a top realtor in the area and helped Miriam find a house for her family; they’ve moved back because Roberto has gotten a job down there. Alma is very well connected and also gets Miriam a gig on a local Spanish-language talk show doing cooking demonstrations.

Alma drags Miriam along to a women’s club meeting (in which Miriam has no interest in attending, let alone joining) during which an attendee at Miriam’s table face-plants into her plate of chicken salad (flavorless); she is pronounced dead–and little does Miriam know how this sudden death is going to help change the direction of her life.

While this is a fine mystery–I enjoyed following Miriam along her route as she becomes a reluctant amateur assistant to the investigation officer, Detective Pullman to try to clear Alma, who has been accused of not just this death but another that follows shortly thereafter–the real strength of this book is Miriam herself. Reyes had created a lovable character, fiercely proud of her own heritage and determined that her child be appreciative and a part of that heritage (I love that she only speaks Spanish to Manny while Roberto speaks to him in English so he will grow up bilingual), and she is absolutely real; fully developed with a strong history, an inquisitive and intelligent mind, and trying very hard to adapt to being a fish out of water in her own home region–Christ, the microaggressions she has to put up with on a daily basis (I wanted to slap her bitch mother-in-law any number of times)–and despite being off-balance, she is very centered even as life keeps throwing things at her.

I also loved that Miriam brings to an end a long-time family rift as well.

I loved this book, and i am really looking forward to getting to know Miriam more in the future.

NOTE: This is the second book I’ve read where a foreign language–in this case Spanish–was used and never demarcated by italicization. It caught me off-guard at first, but as I got more used to it I began wondering why that was ever done in the first place? Did publishers think readers would be confused and think the foreign words were typos unless delineated as “different”? Oy.

Glad to see that practice ending.

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