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About The Book

Set amid the elegant châteaux of Belle époque France and the closely guarded world of nineteenth-century Persian women, Courtesan unfolds with the breathtaking cinematic sweep and stunning visual grandeur of an epic film. At its heart are three unforgettable women: Madame Gabrielle, the courtesan whose fateful liaison with the shah of Persia reverberates in the lives of her daughter, Françoise, and her rebellious and brave granddaughter, Simone, whose journey plunges her into the cutthroat diamond trade, where the secrets of an ancient culture may hold the truth she desperately seeks.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
1. Describe the three women of Château Gabrielle, both individually and in the context of their mother-daughter relationships. What was your initial perception of Mme Gabrielle, Françoise, and Simone? Did your opinion change as the story progressed?
2. Given the limited options available to women in the late nineteenth century, do you understand the decision Mme Gabrielle -- and later Françoise -- made to become a courtesan? Does their chosen profession make them superior to men, subservient to them, or of equal standing? What is their reputation, and how are they viewed by society?
3. Mme Gabrielle records the story of her life in a journal, with the hope that by revealing her past to Simone it will change her granddaughter's mind about continuing the family's legacy as courtesans. Do you believe Simone will change her mind after reading the journal? Why does Françoise feel betrayed when she discovers her mother's memoirs are addressed to Simone and not to her?
4. What does Mme Gabrielle gain from the process of revisiting her past? If she could live her life over again, do you think she would make the same choices? Mme Gabrielle describes herself as "Jew and Gentile, and proud of her accomplishments" (21). Has delving into her past allowed her to reconnect with her Jewish heritage?
5. How would you describe Simone before she meets Cyrus? How about when she returns to Château Gabrielle after his death? From what you know about the time she spent in Persia, do you think she would have been happy living there, a place where she was met with hostility because of her Jewish heritage and her French nationality?
6. "One of a rare breed of women who were fortunate to boast a perfect balance of the preeminent male and female attributes, [Mme Gabrielle] utilized these assets to her advantage" (35). What are these assets? Using Mme Gabrielle's encounter with the Shah as an example, how do they work to her advantage as a courtesan and also as a businesswoman?
7. How do Simone's ideas about love and marriage differ from those of her mother? How have Françoise's experiences -- never knowing the identity of her father, Simone's father leaving her for another woman -- shaped her views of love and marriage? Does Simone's own experience of finding and losing love make her more understanding of her mother?
8. When Simone makes love with Cyrus at the lake, they are "unaware of Mme Gabrielle who observed them from the clover hill, rejoicing that her granddaughter would belong to her, at last" (152). Why does Mme Gabrielle believe this encounter with Cyrus will change Simone's mind about joining the family profession? What is your opinion of how she attempts to persuade Simone to become a courtesan? Why is it so important to Mme Gabrielle?
9. Discuss Alphonse and Mme Gabrielle's first encounter, which she recounts in her journal. What has made him stay with her for thirty years in such an unconventional relationship? Why do you think Mme Gabrielle has finally chosen to reveal the truth about Alphonse's identity?
10. How does Dora Levy Mossanen evoke the five senses -- smell, touch, taste, sound, and sight -- to enrich the story? Françoise tells Simone, "Memory and fragrance are intertwined in our emotional brain. Men will miss you when you leave your perfume behind" (68). How does scent, in particular, play an essential role in the story?
11. Simone refutes the profession of her mother and grandmother, and yet she uses the very same skills of seduction for a different purpose -- revenge. Does the insight Simone gains alter her opinion about the life of a courtesan?
12. On her quest to uncover the circumstances of Cyrus's death, Simone seeks information from Monsieur Rouge, Monsieur Amir, and Monsieur Jean Paul Dubois. What do you think of her methods for obtaining the information she seeks? What drives her to continue the mission even at the risk of her own life?
13. Courtesan weaves together facets of different cultures and religions. What are the most distinct differences between Simone's life in France and in Persia? Why does Mehrdad tell Simone, "The bullet that pierced Cyrus's heart was laced with hatred of the Jew" (311)? In what other instances do religious differences play out in the story?
14. When Mehrdad comes to Château Gabrielle, Simone at first believes it is Cyrus. What is the significance of Mehrdad's resembling Cyrus so closely in appearance and mannerisms? Why has he come to Château Gabrielle, and what does he want from Simone?
15. Discuss the novel's ending. What is your interpretation of Simone laying down her revolver? What do you think Simone decides to do -- return to Persia with Mehrdad, remain at Château Gabrielle, or something else entirely? Do you see her fulfilling her grandmother's wishes and becoming a courtesan? Ultimately, do Mme Gabrielle, Françoise, and Simone each find what they are looking for?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Dora Levy Mossanen was born in Israel and moved to Iran when she was nine. At the onset of the Islamic revolution, she and her family fled to the United States. The recipient of the San Diego State University Editor's Choice award and the author of Harem, a widely acclaimed novel translated into numerous languages, Dora Levy Mossanen lives in Beverly Hills, California. She can be reached at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (November 24, 2009)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439188323

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Raves and Reviews

"A cross between Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Da Vinci Code, Dora Levy Mossanen's new novel invites us into a great courtesan's satin-lined bed and draws us into the carnal grip of turn-of-the-century Paris and Persia."
-- Alison Leslie Gold, author of Fiet's Vase and The Devil's Mistress

" exhilarating epic that roams from Persia to Paris to South Africa, carrying the reader along on a wave of intrigue, murder, and romance."
-- John Rechy, author of City of Night

"From the first page of Courtesan, I felt as if I had stepped into a mirage. The dream landscape Mossanen builds, one stunning image at a time, cements her place as a magic realist with a decidedly erotic twist."
-- M. J. Rose, author of The Halo Effect

"Dora Levy Mossanen masters the fine-tuned powers of language. She has the rare talent to transform the 'lust-vein' of our imagination into a panoply of lyrical imagery, at once visual and sensual. Her characters live out loud in the best tradition of a Zola-styled narrative."
-- James Ragan, poet and author of Lusions

"A sweeping romance with intrigues in both fin de siècle Paris and repressive Persia, Mossanen's engrossing second novel (after Harem) follows the sentimental education of a young seductress. Though Simone knows from a young age that she's too romantic to follow her courtesan mother, Françoise, into the family business, her grandmother, famed Parisian madam Gabrielle (née Ester Abramowicz), isn't so convinced. A really handsome man, she figures, can seduce Simone, and thus initiate her into the habits of wealthy courtesans. Gabrielle sets upon Cyrus, a handsome Persian jeweler, and Simone is intrigued by the man who supplies only the rarest diamonds to the shah's court ("Was the origin of red diamonds the blood of mistreated diggers, the blazing eyes of dragons guarding illicit mines, or the tears of children forced into hard labor?" she wonders). She succumbs to his charms -- but then they fall in love. Simone moves with her new husband to the rugged mountains of Persia to make a quiet life living as Jews in a Muslim country, but her happiness is short-lived. Abrupt shifts between times and locations confuse, but the engaging plot wins out. And while the sex scenes are a bit overcooked (Simone "directed the creamy gaze of her breasts" at a suitor), readers will find themselves gripped by spirited Simone's many adventures."
-- Publisher's Weekly

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