Livia Pertini meets her husband to be, Enzo in her village on the day her favourite buffalo wins the beauty prize. However, their honeymoon is cut short by him being recalled back to the front and she never sees him again. Slimy crook Alberto wants to get Livia into his bed and when his efforts leave her family without any food or money she returns to Naples to find work in the munitions factories.
James Gould is posted to Naples in 1943 and has the dubious honour of being the "wedding officer" where he has to judge the suitability of the Italian fiancees of the British soldiers. He has to be sure they are of good character, which basically means that they're not a prostitute...unfortunately it's the only employment most women in Naples are able to find. James is increasingly frustrated by the work and takes a hard line on both the fiancees and the local black market. The locals take an imaginative view on solving the problem and get Livia a job as James's cook to make him happy as "a contented stomach, a forgiving heart" will make life much easier for everyone. James is a complete innocent but he finds himself quickly falling for Naples, the food and the charms of Livia, they gradually develop their relationship based on a love of great food and each other.
In the background to this the war is ongoing, but Vesuvius is also rumbling. The volcano explodes whilst Livia is back in her home village and her father is seriously injured. James is unable to get to her, but tirelessly works on the relief operation until the roads are clear. By this time Livia has had to give in to the demands of Alberto but refuses to marry him and in revenge he arranges for her to be shipped of to Rome. When James discovers her fate he joins the front line battle to get her back.
I did enjoy this book, and I have Capella's first novel on my "to be read" pile, so I'll look at that a bit quicker. The descriptions of Italy and its food are gorgeous, I spent most the first two thirds drooling, which isn't great as I read mostly in bed before going to sleep! The unfolding love story is engaging and sexy. I do like my characters a bit more "fleshy" - I found them interesting and likable, but I wasn't totally taken over by them. Livia starts out as a bit abrasive and clever which comes across through her mocking humour and although the circumstances she goes through obviously change her, some of this fun was lost by the end. James is a bit wet, but as he "goes native" he becomes more interesting.
I dropped a star as I felt that the book was taking itself a bit too seriously, particularly in the last 100 pages. What started out as a delicious foody romance became rather too embroiled in the last stages of the war in Italy with a brief sojourn through communism...which I personally felt was too big a leap in terms of what the book was about and also in characterisation of James.
Still, a really good read and I'm looking forward to reading others by the same author.