The Wedding Officer
by Anthony Capella
(Bantam, $22, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-553-80547-5
*****
The Wedding Officer will spoil you for any other book for several weeks after you finish it, because nothing else will be as funny, tragic, romantic or passionate.  From the first page to the last, this luscious World War II love story is a keeper all the way.   

Young British officer James Gould arrives in Naples in 1944 to coordinate the local Field Security Service office.  His most important task is to discourage the large number of British soldiers who want to marry Italian women.  As his commanding officer reminds him, “It makes the soldiers soft – no one wants to die when they’ve got an Italian senorita keeping the bed warm for them.”  After working through his own culture shock at the Italian way of doing things – bribery is universally accepted and welcomed, rules are made to be broken, and allegiances are totally mutable – James realizes he has to take a firm stand and deny every single marriage application, even though he secretly feels compassion for many of the couples.  

Livia Pertini is a beautiful widow with an almost supernatural gift for cooking.  Unfortunately there is little food to be found in their village of Fiscino, and a rich and powerful gangster has made it clear that he will stop at nothing to make Livia his mistress.  When she flees to Naples in search of safety and a job, she is assigned to serve as chef for the Allied officers, thanks to a bit of manipulation by the Neapolitans who hope that a well-fed James will be a more mellow, flexible James.  After all, restaurant owner Angelo says, “A man who has eaten well – he’s at peace with the world, he’s happy, and more importantly, he wants other people to be happy.”   

Despite his best intentions to keep his distance, James finds himself incredibly attracted to Livia, and eventually she comes to appreciate his goodness and honor, not to mention his gradual acceptance of the Italian war brides.  But their increasingly passionate affair must be kept secret, for it wouldn’t do for the Wedding Officer to engage in the very practice he is supposed to explicitly forbid.  The forces of nature and the horrors of war combine together to threaten the lovers’ happiness and their very lives.  Will James have the chance to live happily ever after with Livia, basking in her love and feasting on her fettucine al limone, walnut parmesan butter antipasto and apricot dolce?   

The hot-blooded Southern European loosening up the uptight Brit has been done before, but author Anthony Capella, in only his second novel, executes the plot so well that you don’t mind the cliché.  The book bursts with passion for sex and food, and the respectable, repressed James doesn’t realize he is starving for both.  While most of the love scenes shy away from anything graphic, the descriptions of the delectable foods that Livia prepares are explicit and mouth-watering.   

The Wedding Officer is frequently hilarious in a wry, British sort of way.  Much of the humor comes from the culture and language barriers, while in other cases the foibles of individuals trying to survive in the uncertainties of war come in for gentle satire.  But the book doesn’t flinch from showing man’s violent nature and the horrors of the battlefield as well.  The same chapter often elicits laughter and tears en route to a totally satisfactory resolution.   

Livia is a strong-willed if perhaps too perfect heroine, but the story really belongs to James, who at the tender age of 22 proves to be brave, decent, resourceful and adaptable, not to mention a quick learner in bed and in the kitchen.  The best compliment I can give him is that he reminded me of a Carla Kelly hero.   

The Wedding Officer is a great summer beach read, but it will be a perfect read to warm your heart in the cold depths of winter too.  You’ll want to re-read this delightful book several times a year.   

--Susan Scribner


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