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The Various Flavors of Coffee    by Anthony Capella order for
Various Flavors of Coffee
by Anthony Capella
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2009 (2008)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Anthony Capella, internationally bestselling author of The Wedding Officer, now brings readers another lush, spicy historical in The Various Flavors of Coffee, set in nineteenth-century England and Africa. His lead, young self-styled poet Robert Wallis is less than likeable for most of the story, but he grows on the reader as life seasons him.

An older Wallis narrates as he looks back with a degree of contempt - as well as 'exasperated affection' - on his ludicrous younger self in 1895, just after he was sent down from Oxford. He muses that 'Just as coffee does not reveal its true flavor until it has been picked, husked, roasted and brewed, so this particular specimen has one or two virtues to go along with his vices'. The direction of young Robert's life changes after a chance remark in the Café Royal brings him to the attention of coffee magnate Samuel Pinker, who hopes to change society one bean at a time via Pinker's Temperance Taverns.

After consultation with his lovely feminist daughter Emily, Pinker offers Robert a position that takes advantage of both his palate and gift for words. In no position to refuse, Robert agrees to work with Emily to develop a standardized set of descriptors to capture 'the elusive taste of coffee'. Emily's sisters have mixed reactions to Robert - bookish Ada distrusts him but small Philomena ('the Frog') worships him. And though Robert is attracted to Emily and begins to hope to make her his wife, it doesn't stop him from regularly visiting prostitutes.

When Samuel Pinker becomes aware of their developing relationship, he sends Robert to Africa (for at least four years) 'to make his fortune' with the help of Pinker's general manager, plainspoken Scottish Hector Crannach. His African adventures change Robert in many ways, especially after he falls hard for Fikre, a beautiful and highly intelligent slave, who is 'like a fierce coil of compressed resentment and fight' - they share a forbidden passion, and Robert ultimately gets what he deserves.

In the meantime, Emily meets a young Liberal MP, Arthur Brewer, who supports both free trade (winning her father's approval) and women's right to vote (winning her own). It seems like the perfect match, but after their wedding it becomes clear that 'to Arthur, an argumentative wife was a blatant challenge to his authority.' Emily becomes more and more deeply involved in activism for female suffrage at the same time as her husband's party decides to drop the movement as a distraction. Robert returns to find that chapter of his life closed, but remains Emily's friend and works with her father again.

The reader wonders how this will all end, and Capella serves up a rich brew - mixing tragedy and betrayal, redemption and romance - for which an Ethiopian coffee toast is apt: 'Let us drink God's bitter tears.' Ultimately his remarkable novel not only addresses the various flavors of coffee - but reminds us that the 'laugh of a woman, the scent of a child, the making of coffee - these are the various flavors of love.' So sit down, sip and savor a freshly roasted mocca, and settle into this extraordinary and highly satisfying novel.

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