The Italian Prisoner by Elisa M. Speranza, Burgundy Bend, 2022, 295 pages, $15.99.

At the beginning of Elisa Speranza’s fiction debut The Italian Prisoner, young Rose Marino is poised on the brink of committing a daring social act, but it’s not the main one in the book, not the life-changing daring social act that will change her life in the course of the book. Rather, she’s looking for a job.

The author is a summer resident of Oak Bluffs and in the winter lives in New Orleans where the book is set. The time is 1943. America is fully committed to the Second World War — so much so that many towns and neighborhoods are experiencing drastic labor shortages. Rose has given it a lot of thought, and she’s decided she wants to at least try to do her part for the war effort by traveling across town and applying for a job at the Higgins Shipyard.

Knowing how they’ll likely react to an unmarried young woman getting a job out in the world, Rose tells her Sicilian immigrant parents that she’s going to donate blood. But it’s not a secret she can keep for long, especially when her application is accepted and she’s offered a job. Her parents bridle at the idea but eventually give their consent.

“Always be proud of your Sicilian blood,” her father tells her. “We’ve done nothing wrong, but now we must be Americans first.”

Rose takes the job, and she quickly realizes what a great many women realized when they entered the workforce in order to take the jobs their brothers and cousins and husbands and sons had vacated: she not only likes the independence but is soon very good at her job. With her parents approving and her immediate boss realizing what a gem she is at the work, Rose’s next few years seem set on an exciting new plan.

It’s abruptly overturned — by love, of course. Through a function put on by her church, Rose and her best friend meet some of the 51,000 Italian prisoners of war who were held in the US from 1943 to 1945, 1,000 of whom were housed at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans. These Italian POWs are courteous and well-behaved (most of them weren’t ardent believers in Mussolini’s regime to begin with), and Rose’s attention is at once drawn to a handsome young man named Salvatore Dilisio, who is likewise drawn to her. 

This introduces the narrative strand that will dominate the bulk of the book, and Ms. Speranza does a knowing, sensitive job unfolding the story of Rose and Sal falling in love despite all the obstacles between them (even linguistic ones, as at first, his English is as choppy as her Italian). From the beginning, the budding relationship is charged with a refreshingly carnal element, which of course complicates everything for Rose.

“As she withdrew her arm brushed against his and her skin tingled,” one such passage goes. “Instantly, she felt ashamed. These were prisoners of war, not American soldiers at a dance.”

As the two lovers grow closer and share experiences, as the months go by and ongoing news of the war is blared from every radio and newspaper headline, the novel captures the heady disorientation of first serious love. “There would be no ‘normal,’ ever again,” Rose thinks at one point. “She knew that.”

The Italian Prisoner does a smoothly confident job drawing readers into the world of wartime New Orleans. The dynamics of foreign prisoners of war spending years quartered in American cities and towns will be unfamiliar to many readers, and those dynamics are well-drawn in these pages. The novel belongs entirely to Rose, but nevertheless, the large cast of secondary characters are well fleshed-out and often represent different life-paths or choices than the ones Rose herself makes.

Ms. Speranza saves the most surprising and thought-provoking of those decisions for the very end of the novel, and it’s likely to divide readers in the way all challenging writing does. There are predictable elements throughout the book — predictability is hard-baked into romance narratives, after all — but right when readers are beginning to feel a complacent comfort in how things will turn out, Rose provides them with one more surprise. Half of Mr. Speranza’s readership will cheer, but all of those readers will finish the book eager to see what this author writes next. 

Elisa Speranza will host a book signing for The Italian Prisoner on Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. at Edgartown Books, 44 Main street.