Natasha DesLauriers received a major career boost when the New York Times selected her for a special assignment in Manhattan. The California photojournalist and documentary filmmaker is commissioned to be the lead curator on a series of photographic and literary essays capturing an unusual societal and spiritual renaissance in New York. Her subject: the recently discovered theological writings of a 17th century Franciscan scholar named Fr. Paolo Cipriani on the hypocrisy of annulment.
For four centuries the long forgotten priest and his theological works remained unknown to the world as he rested in his grave in Tuscany. Then a chance finding of Cipriani’s journals in a Bed & Breakfast by a group of Italian studies scholars from Columbia University resurrects his provocative teachings. Cipriani’s theological papers reveal a passionate mind with an equally raging heart from a life full of paradox. The intimacy of Cipriani’s thoughts show a man who had never been in love, let alone married, and obsessively avoided contact with women, even the elderly nuns he encountered. Yet despite his lifelong isolation, Cipriani was a fanatical zealot whose hatred of divorce and even annulment led to near ex-communication by the Catholic Church.
As the English translations are released and published through the joint efforts of Columbia’s Departments of Italian and Religion, the once obscure and controversial Florentine cleric enjoys an overnight posthumous fame. Cipriani is a 17th century religious thought provocateur who becomes an unofficial patron Saint of hope among relationship challenged urban dwellers left burnt out from their failed quests for lasting true love. Thanks to social media, Fr. Cipriani ‘s ideas are quoted often in modern magazines, informal study groups are launched around Manhattan, local TV and radio talk shows broadcasting segments about him, and new legions of blogger followers are turning up on the Internet daily. In death, as during his life, Cipriani’s capacity for paradox continues. The most ironic phenomenon that puzzles everyone is how his writings are causing coverts in the most unlikely people to Catholicism.
For Natasha, Cipriani answered her prayers to return home to New York after a decade on the West Coast. Not only is this a chance to work for the New York Times but also an opportunity to teach part-time at her almost alma mater, the Columbia School of Journalism. Her relocation to Los Angeles over a decade earlier had been a knee jerk reaction. In a 24 hour period her lifelong plans disintegrated as she walked onto a plane bound for the West Coast. Natasha was seeking escape from a city that seemed determined to forever dangle her heart’s desires in front of her. At 22, she could never reach far enough to claim her dreams. Moving to California wasn’t so much about leaving home but feeling to defeated to stay and endure more failure.
Everything that Manhattan refused to grant her came in excess in Southern California: her professional accomplishments, the Orange County lifestyle complements of a short-lived but long enough marriage to an LA film executive named Will DesLauriers, a lively social circle among Palm trees and beach houses, Hollywood industry romances, and the West Coast accent that replaced her old voice. Like a cliche, Natasha’s most dramatic life changes in Los Angeles was her physical metamorphosis. Thanks to skillful sculpting from famous plastic surgeons, every year that passed brought a nip, stuck, and sculpt until she had cut off every piece of her old New York body.
The day she accepted the offer from the Times she knew she was ready to get real again. Leaving Los Angeles meant the end of a temporary life that lasted too long. Coming home meant facing the familiar faces in New Rochelle and Manhattan who would look at her like a stranger. She was. No one, except family, had heard from her once she was gone.
Everyone knew her as Natalie Martucci. People remembered the long dark hair with thick curls, hazel eyes, a face that resembled her Sicilian grandmother, and the statuesque physique of a Russian grandfather. Natalie was Mark and Heather’s little sister. The serious one who rarely smiled. The girl who was often smaller than her classmates but had a photographic memory like an adult. Natalie never thought she would live anywhere else. New York was home until it broke her heart and almost her spirit.
15 years ago it had all been too unbearable. The Columbia School of Journalism had placed her on a wait list. Her sister married and moved away to Boston. Her uncle retired the restaurant where she had worked part-time since high school. She graduated from St. John’s but didn’t gain entry into her dream school. All the entry level jobs in media when to people who benefited from nepotism. Then she watched as Bradley, the only guy that made an effort to know her throughout college, suddenly propose to an off-Broadway actress he met at a baseball game just seven weeks earlier. She had to get away. An impulsive acceptance to Annenberg at USC and a day later she took a flight to LAX.
Once Natasha is back in New York she embarks on chronicling the social impact of Cipriani’s celebrity 400 years after his death. The particular New York stories she discovers are unusual in the characters, coincidences, and choices that people make after discovering Cipriani. When she runs into Bradley, a former college classmate who runs a study group in Chelsea called “The Florentine Scribe”, Natasha must face the very problem she retreated from. Bradley instantly wants to get to know her but for Natasha it’s a cosmic joke she doesn’t find funny. There was a reason why she left for California the day before his wedding. There is also a reason why she stopped using the Americanized version of her name when she went to Los Angeles. The biggest reason of all is why she won’t let Bradley know that she is not a green-eyed blonde stranger from California. In fact, he knew her as a brown-eyed brunette named Natalie back when they were undergraduates at St. John’s.
Natasha believes that she just has to avoid her old college puppy love. Yet the more she works on her special project the chance run-ins with Bradley increase all over New York City. She thinks he is following her until her brother Danny, a veteran NYPD Detective, assures Natasha that isn’t being stalked.
Is some kind of divine intervention, or Fr. Cirpiani’s ghost, trying to compel Natasha to surrender and allow Bradley to be part of her life?
What began as an objective professional project for Natasha swiftly turns deeply personal as she must confront her childhood Catholic values around love, marriage, divorce, and annulment. When Natasha’s Editor asks her to work on a supplemental story on the mental health benefits being reported by study group participants, she inevitably spend more time with Bradley. When she discovers his son Jason has been put on an experimental psychiatric drug with unknown side effects, Natasha suspects Jason has been misdiagnosed. The more Natasha notices the similarities between Jason and the cases she researched for an investigative series back in California, she can’t not share her knowledge with Bradley.
Natasha’s concerns reignites the unusual relationship triangle between Natasha, Bradley, and Jason’s mother Sylvia. The closer Natasha gets to completing her journalistic project she more she feels she must decide whether to extract herself from Bradley’s life again. Not only are his attempts to obtain an annulment from Rome not succeeding but as more of Cipriani’s writing are published in English, Natasha feels as if a priest dead for four centuries is guiding her to return to California and leave Bradley behind again for good.
When the LA Times tries to lure Natasha back to the West Coast as an Executive Editor she must choose whether to stay or go and finally reveal their shared past to Bradley.