The author of HAREM, Dora Levy Mossanen's latest work is COURTESAN, which, like her previous novel, focuses on the theme of professional seduction and sex. COURTESAN's protagonists are three women from three different generations: Madame Gabrielle, the matriarch and grandmother of the d'Honore family; Gabrielle's daughter, Francoise; and Simone, Francoise's daughter. Both Gabrielle and Francoise are courtesans --- high-priced French prostitutes. They're wealthy and powerful and have been in bed with many wealthy and powerful men. Simone, however, is repulsed by this life and believes in true love. Gabrielle tries her best to convince Simone otherwise, introducing Simone to her world by persuading a Persian jeweler to be Simone's first experience. Unfortunately for Gabrielle, Simone and Cyrus fall in love, marry, and move away to Tehran against Gabrielle's wishes.
The first half of the novel reads like a romance. The focus then shifts to Cyrus and his work with red diamonds. There is a mystery associated with these diamonds, as Cyrus thinks he's discovered something that is illegal and tries to determine what it is. When he disappears and is thought to be dead, Simone goes into mourning but is then determined to find out what happened to Cyrus --- and eventually finds herself in the middle of this mystery.
Cyrus courted Simone with red diamonds when he first met her, and he also wore a red diamond in his ear. The diamonds are central to their story, but at the same time Simone's need to be her own person and not the courtesan her mother and grandmother want her to be drives the story.
The shifts in time Mossanen employed throughout the book were not to my liking as they were choppy and without rhythm, but this did not detract from my enjoyment of the book. What I found most pleasurable were the characters and backdrop of the story. 1900s Persia and Paris offer a romantic setting amid the world of the wealthy courtesans. Madame Gabrielle, with her ability to speak to spirits, was especially fun to read about. She has all sorts of wonderfully interesting dead spirits hanging around her, including Franz Liszt and Oscar Wilde, and they can be found floating under her armpits and sitting on her breasts, giving advice or commentary. Very lighthearted bantering goes back and forth between Gabrielle and her many old lovers --- some long gone, others only recently deceased.
The character of Simone stood out because she's strong and not afraid to defy her family's "heritage." The most riveting part for me was learning about the true history of Simone's family and the fact that Gabrielle had hidden from her daughter and granddaughter their real identity and where they came from.
What Mossanen does best in her books is detail beautiful historically romantic settings and describe characters in such a way that they all come to life as on the big screen. Her stories span long periods and her characters' lives are based on history, but there is always that touch of the spirit world that sneaks into her stories. While COURTESAN could have used more structure, it was enjoyable and I'm looking forward to more of Mossanen's work.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton on January 7, 2011