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Courtesan

A Novel
By Dora Levy Mossanen

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?

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