Novelist captures belle poque mystique

Lost one night in Paris, author Dora Levy Mossanen caught a glimpse of the city’s seedier side and of the prostitute that inspired the first character in her historical romance novel “Courtesan.”

“I saw her under an archway. She flipped off her hat and set loose a mass of blue curls.” Mossanen said. “And at that moment, Gabrielle was born.”

Born Ester Abramowicz, Gabrielle d’Honoré is the first of three generations of Jewish courtesans living in belle époque France, their exploits detailed in “Courtesan.”

Mossanen had gone to Paris to attend a six-week immersion course on turn-of-the-century France. She buried herself in her studies while gathering material and inspiration for the book.

“I felt like I was living in that era,” Mossanen said. “All of my senses were heightened.”

Mossanen was born in Tel Aviv and lived there until the age of 9. Her parents, Iranian Jews, had moved to Israel during the War of Independence in which her father fought for the Israeli army. But in 1953, they returned to Tehran and Mossanen was confronted with a dramatically different social, religious and political climate.

“In Israel, women could be in the army, carry

Uzis and wear shorts,” Mossanen said. “In Iran, I was confronted with a culture where women had to wear a chador and hide their faces.”

“And as a Jew, I was

suddenly a minority.” Mossanen said. “I had to adjust to a completely different way of life.”

It’s the kind of experience Mossanen depicts in “Courtesan.” Gabrielle’s granddaughter Simone leaves Paris and moves to Iran, following her Persian Jewish husband, Cyrus, to his homeland. There she encounters a profound sense of isolation made worse when Cyrus disappears. “I like to put Jewish women in difficult situations to show their resilience,” Mosssanen said.

She draws inspiration for her strong female characters from her own family. Her grandmother was married at the age of 9 and bucked the societal constrains of the time. “She refused to wear a chador and broke barriers of class society.” And Mossanen’s mother was one of the first women to obtain a driver’s license in Iran.

“I write about women who don’t allow cultural barriers to stand in their way.”

But she also writes a good love story.

Mossanen seamlessly intersects Judaism, feminism, romance, mystery and history into the novel. However, she feels the most strongly about the Jewish element.

“It is the strongest part of my identity and it shows through in my writing.”

Conversely, the characters in “Courtesan” grapple with their Jewish heritage.

Gabrielle broke societal constraints when she became a courtesan. And though her father was a rabbi she chose to hide her Jewish heritage in order to cavort with the upper echelon of society. This duality is something she comes to terms with while writing her memoirs; which are woven throughout the novel.

Addressing her granddaughter Simone, Gabrielle writes, “You have flowered into an intelligent woman who will find her footing, somewhere between Papa’s Warsaw shtetl and the French Marais; somewhere between your Persian men and French heritage.”

Living in Iran, Mossanen’s family instilled the importance of retaining a Jewish identity. “At Rosh Hashanah my father would talk to us for hours about the danger of the disappearance of the Jews in the world.”

When the Islamic revolution began in 1979, Mossanen fled to Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. And for a second time, she was thrust into a drastically different culture.

But resilient like her characters, Mossanen entered the creative writing program at UCLA; where she wrote her first novel (her thesis), “Harem.”

“There was a mini-revolution in my own home when I decided to go to school.”

“Courtesan” by Dora Levy Mossanen (304 pages, Touchstone, $14).