Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray
(Harmony Books, $21.00, PG) ISBN 0-609-60672-7
*****
Jeanne Ray's debut book, Julie and Romeo is a warmhearted, sidesplittingly funny, tender account of two unlikely lovers and a family feud that's been going on so long nobody remembers how it started. This may be the liveliest book you'll read all summer.

Julie Roseman has known about the Cacciamani family ever since she was a small girl and watched her father spit after uttering the Cacciamani name. In a brilliant bit of early staging for the rest of the story, five-year-old Julie decides that "Cacciamani" must be a kind of fish.

My father, who loved just about everything, was not a fan of fish, and so I assumed the conversation must have gone something like this:

MY MOTHER: Howard, I got some nice fresh Cacciamani for dinner tonight.
MY FATHER: Cacciamani! [Spit] Pigs!

Julie grows up to detest the Cacciamani family as much as her parents, though like her early conclusion about the name, she has no idea what the feud is about. Marriage to Mort and two daughters provide no enlightenment. Now here she is, sixty years old, Mort having long left with a woman described as a "professional bridesmaid," and Julie is losing her battle to keep the florist shop afloat. Her daughter Sandy is living with her, along with Sandy's two children. Sandy, whose teenaged romance with Tony Cacciamani was broken up by both families.

Then at a useless small-business seminar, Julie runs into Romeo Cacciamani. This handsome, perfectly nice gentleman is an evil Cacciamani? And what's she doing feeling a flutter of interest? Romeo, a widower with six children and his own struggling florist shop, suggests dinner. Despite her misgivings, Julie accepts. The wheels of romance are set in motion. What will the children say?

Plenty. Tears, screams, threats, hysterics -- all are in store, as Julie and Romeo discover to their mutual astonishment that sixty-plus doesn't mean dead below the neck. And having found a love this fine, they are not going to give it up without a fight.

The story is told by Julie, and we get to see the pieces of her life in detail. Daughter Nora, the confident career woman, hates all things Cacciamani and will do almost anything to stop her mother from making this mistake -- even call in Julie's ex-husband. Sandy, at first nothing but a ball of negativism, begins to see that maybe her mother has the right to make her own choices. And best pal Gloria is a bracing, wisecracking ally -- a human version of a stiff drink.

Julie and Romeo may be sixty, but their story is everyone's. The uncertainty, the exhilaration, the excruciating moments -- they're all here, as in their first "date," when they agree to meet at the CVS drugstore so the kids won't suspect. Arriving early, Julie has already become depressed reading the articles on sex in the magazine aisle (all aimed at people under forty, it seems):

By the time I had wandered over toward the pharmacy, I was ready to call it a night. Lubrication creams next to adult undergarments. A wall of condoms in every conceivable color and texture, all promising protection from sexually transmitted diseases. I had forgotten about those. Lambskins and Magnums. Condoms that came packaged like the gold chocolate coins of my youth. The magazine was right. I was over, out of business. I was standing there staring at the boxes, reading the hideously depressing slogans ("For Feeling Like Love"), thinking that sex was a sport for the young, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

"Shopping?" Romeo said.

I wasn't wearing my glasses and so my nose was approximately three inches away from a box of condoms. "I think this may be the single worst instant of my life," I said.

"Good," he said. "Then things can only go up from here."

How Julie and Romeo manage to hang onto each other makes for hilarious reading, and when the truth of the feud finally comes out, you'll have as big a grin on your face as I did. Don't miss Julie and Romeo. It may be the happiest book of the year.

--Cathy Sova


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