Newton (Tasting Home, 2013) makes her fiction debut with a cooking-focused whodunit set at a California college in the late 1990s.
Emily Addams, the story’s narrator, is the head of the women’s studies program at Arbor State, a former land-grant school that, as the millennium approaches, faces budgetary issues. As per usual, programs like Emily’s are the first on the chopping block, as the higher-ups plan to absorb women’s and ethnic studies into larger departments like humanities or social sciences. While Emily schemes with her colleagues on how to fight this reorganization, a scandal rocks the campus. Peter Elliot, a professor of plant biology, is found poisoned in the college’s hog yard and taken to the hospital. Peter has his enemies on campus: he is an outspoken proponent of pesticides and genetically modified foods. But Emily becomes a prime suspect because Peter was found with a piece of cornbread in his hand—it contained ingredients from a recipe that she is well-known for. And she had just brought her cornbread to a college event. Emily is cleared of the crime, but the fact that she was implicated arouses her suspicions, so she begins to investigate the incident, relying on her network of female faculty members to dig into Peter’s many secrets. On top of saving her program and solving a mystery, Emily has to juggle her teaching responsibilities; time with her daughter, Polly; and a romance with a new beau, a math professor. The novel, while dealing with heavy subjects, maintains a light and airy tone. The prose is more focused on driving the plot than lingering on descriptions, except when Emily and her colleagues speak, often very informatively, about their fields. To add to the fun, Newton puts a recipe at the end of every chapter for a dish that was mentioned in that part, giving the text a nice interactivity. Emily is a well-rounded, inquisitive character whom the reader gets to know well; the rest of the players are somewhat flatter, often acting as props for the propulsion of the plot. That plot, however, is intriguing and full of twists, and it’s hard to find fault with the author’s theme of communal empowerment, her love of food, and her frequent instructional asides.
A highly educated foodie’s dream, this tale delivers a unique take on both the campus and mystery genres.