Originally published in 2022
Last November, I found a dead body inside the freezer that my roommate keeps inside the garage. My first thought was to call the police, but Jignesh hadn’t paid his share of the rent just yet. It wasn’t due until the thirtieth, and you know how difficult it is to find people who pay on time. Jignesh always does. Also, he had season tickets for the LA Opera, and well . . . Madame Butterfly. Tosca. The Flying Dutchman . . . at the Dorothy Chandler . . . you cannot say no to that, can you? Well, it’s been a few good months now—Madame Butterfly was just superb, thank you. However, last Friday, I found a second body inside that stupid freezer in the garage. This time I’m evicting Jignesh. My house isn’t a mortuary . . . alas, I need to come up with some money first. You’ll understand, therefore, that I desperately need to sell this novel. Just enough copies to help me survive until I find a job . . . what could I do that doesn’t demand too much effort? We have a real treasure here, anyhow. Some chapters are almost but not quite pornographic. You could safely lend this to nana afterward!
Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love is another one of those books that is rather difficult to put into a genre box. It is, first and foremost, a work of comedic fiction. It is also the story of a relationship. A messed up, difficult relationship but then the two characters who end up in it are rather messed up, difficult people for reasons we’ll come onto. It discusses sexual and cultural identity and the search for belonging, all the while depicting a moment in California and America’s political climate – the start of President Obama’s second term at a point and the speculation about the administration’s stance on gay marriage.
In addition to being all those things, it is also a crime novel.
Allende’s story concerns an almost accidental serial killer. Jignesh never intended to kill anyone but when a former intern at his company mocks him he lashes out. Panicked and needing to figure out a way of disposing of the body – or at least hiding it – he turns to a one-night stand he had been avoiding who just happens to be in possession of a really oversized freezer.
In what quickly turns into a comedy of errors, Jignesh will soon have more bodies on his hands as his attempts to evade detection push him into more and more trouble. Adding to the complications, while Jignesh has a freezer to store the bodies in, he soon finds that he has to move in with that former hook-up, Charlie, in order to have somewhere to keep the freezer. And then, inevitably, Charlie looks in that freezer and finds himself involved too.
So let’s start by talking comedy. As I have often remarked before on this blog, humor is really subjective. Some will absolutely adore how dark this story gets and how awful the two protagonists behave throughout the story. Others are certain not to. My advice here is that if the concept of the book interests you, go check out the sample chapters on Amazon (or another ebook vendor that does samples). Allende’s two narrators maintain consistent voices throughout and so what you get in those three and a half chapters is pretty representative of the tone and style of the whole book.
Personally I found the situations more amusing than the often outrageous and offensive thoughts of the two protagonists. Charlie’s perspective in particular is laden with cringeworthy racial assumptions and stereotypes. I am quite clear that we not meant to think that those are right or laudable but reflections of the character’s prejudice and upbringing, reminding us that someone can be the subject of microaggressions and bullying behavior while happily engaging in them themselves all the while thinking of themselves as an outrageous wit. Still, while this may work as a character study, I found it a little wearying at points.
The construction of the farce however is superb. So often in these sorts of stories, authors will run out of steam in the later parts of the story. Here though Allende does an amazing job of continuing to escalate and both growing the stakes and the dangers his protagonists find themselves in. Even more impressive though is how he avoids the traps of predictability, delivering some plot developments that surprise while feeling absolutely in keeping with out previous understandings of the characters and the situation they are in.
While I may not have always enjoyed their narration, I did find the protagonists interesting and I enjoyed some of the character exploration that takes place often under the surface. That is perhaps necessary as neither Charlie nor Jignesh is particularly introspective, each seeming to make decisions on impulse, but there are still plenty of moments where we get insight, either from the other character or by the author providing the opportunities to read details or subtext into these characters.
That is particularly true in terms of understanding the complex dynamic of their relationship, much of which develops between chapters or goes unspoken. Neither character is particularly interested in the other romantically at the start of the story yet they are in a very different place by the end of the novel. It’s not exactly a love story – Charlie is quite open with us about how transactionally he views his relationship with Jignesh, particularly once he discovers the first body and opts to delay reporting what he has found to the police until after the LA Opera season is over.
I enjoyed the occasional moments of ambiguity in that relationship and how hard it is to ascribe a label to it. That relationship changes, evolving (and perhaps devolving at points) in response to the events of the novel. It feels very well-observed and that messiness and difficulty made their dynamic all the more interesting to me. I never quite knew what these characters would do in response to the other’s actions, making following that relationship all the more compelling.
What surprised me most is that while I am quite clear that Charlie and Jignesh are both terrible people, there are moments where their situation can elicit some genuine sympathy. That partly reflects that other characters are equally terrible or worse, such as most of the people Jignesh works with. I think it also reflects that their problems are all easy to understand and often to sympathize with. I don’t know that I necessarily wanted them to be happy with each other but I did find myself caring about them by the end.
Which brings me neatly to the book’s conclusion. I have previously mentioned that the book continues to escalate and complicate the situation until the final few pages of the book. By the time we reach that end, thing have become so crazy that the reader may be forgiven for wondering just how everything could possibly be tidied up.
The answer is that while there is a resolution and it feels quite satisfying in terms of paying off what has come before, there are a couple of loose ends left untied and resolutions not quite given. There is one aspect of the story which I had been particularly anticipating yet when we reach the conclusion it isn’t referenced at all. Those reading this for those farce elements though are likely to be pleased with how this wraps up and will excuse a little untidiness in a couple of plot threads for the overall effect of the novel’s punchline.
The Verdict – This often-outrageous crime farce won’t appeal to everyone but features some very clever plot construction and a pair of memorable, if not always likable, protagonists.