This book would have been a lot better had the author been able to decide what he actually wanted to write – a serious historical novel, a light romance or a rip-off of ‘Allo ‘Allo. He should have stuck to the light romance, because he did quite a good job of that. The basic plot involved James, a British officer stationed in Allied-occupied Naples during 1943 and 1944, tasked with dealing with the numerous applications for British soldiers to be allowed to marry their Italian girlfriends, and his relationship with a young Italian war widow, Livia, who did the cooking at Allied HQ. It was a reasonable enough idea for a book, but it was such a mix of different genres that it got a bit silly.
The Italian girlfriends were all prostitutes. That’s a stereotype of Naples that goes right back to the French invasion of Italy in 1494. “See Naples and die” (of syphilis). OK, obviously there was a lot more prostitution in wartime than in peacetime … but all the girlfriends?! And, whilst there was mention of women being forced into prostitution because they had no other means of survival in wartime, they all rather seemed to be enjoying it – like Yvette and Mimi in ‘Allo ‘Allo. And any Italian men who weren’t away fighting were involved in the Mafia: the entire city was a sea of corruption. Meanwhile, the Americans were all loud and brash, whereas the British were all jolly good fair play types. Throw in a few ‘Allo ‘Allo-esque language issues. “Do you lick nipples?” for “Do you like Naples?” (as if an Italian would refer to Napoli as “Naples” anyway!). It would’ve worked quite well in a 1980s sitcom, but I don’t think the book was actually meant to be funny – well, not in a farcical way, anyway.
As a light-ish romance, it worked much better. There were all sorts of problems in their way. He was meant to be discouraging relationships between soldiers and local girls, so it was going to look really bad if he embarked on one himself. What were they going to do after the war – could he settle in Italy, or could she settle in Britain? The back stories were quite interesting. James had been involved with a girl at home, and it was all very suitable but they were more like friends than lovers, and then she, going into the Land Army having transformed herself, had dumped him because she’d met someone she really loved. Livia had loved her late husband, but had realised that she didn’t want the conventional life that a woman in Southern Italy was expected to lead. And there was all this stuff about cooking, with detailed descriptions of meals, which was very entertaining and really good fun.
Then he suddenly seemed to have decided that, seeing as he was writing a novel set in wartime, he really ought to make it more serious … but went way overboard in doing so. Vesuvius erupted, but, thanks to an evacuation operation organised by the Allies, the effects weren’t nearly as bad as they could have been. That is actually true. James was in the thick of it all. Well, OK, you want your main character at the heart of the action. Livia’s father was injured, and, in order to get medication for him, she got involved with an unwanted Mafioso suitor. She then turned down the said suitor’s proposal, and, in revenge, he arranged for her to be taken away as part of a group of women who were going to be sent to a brothel in the German-occupied part of Italy in order to try to win the war by infecting all the German soldiers with syphilis! The author said that this was actually tried in France, incidentally.
However, en route to German-occupied Northern Italy, the women were shipwrecked! They were rescued by partisans, and joined up with them. Some serious and interesting points were made about how close Italy came to becoming communist, and also about how the promises of equality made by communists might well have appealed to women used to the very patriarchal society of Italy, and Southern Italy in particular. But the whole thing with the Mafioso suitor and the winning the war with syphilis and the shipwreck was just so OTT that it was hard to take anything seriously after that.
Meanwhile, James had given up his desk job and headed for the front line, and there were some effective descriptions of warfare, and of the death of his best friend … but it just didn’t fit very well with all the “lick nipples” stuff from earlier in the book. Then, of course, in the middle of wartorn Italy, he managed to find out exactly where Livia was, and … you get the idea.
You have to be a really brilliant author to pull off comedy (and some of the “comedy” in this wasn’t even very funny, and the stereotyping was arguably quite offensive), romance and serious history all in the same book, and Anthony Capella’s not in that league. It was all right, but he should have just made it a light romance with a lot of food talk. He did those bits rather well.