Simone d′Honoré was raised in Chateau Gabrielle, located in the Valley of Civet Cats, France. Her grandmother Madame Gabrielle is a courtesan renowned for her sensual hands and pestered by the ghosts of her former famous lovers. Simone’s mother, Françoise, also provides companionship. Although expected to follow in the family profession, Simone confounds her grandmother by falling in love with her first lover, Cyrus, a Persian manipulated by Gabrielle into seducing Simone. He is equally smitten, and they marry. Cyrus, despite being Jewish, becomes jeweler to the Muslim shah of Persia, supplying him with red diamonds. After Cyrus is murdered, Simone calls upon her gift of emitting intoxicating scents and the skills learned from her kin to track the killer.
More than just a murder mystery, this multifaceted novel explores the place of the independent woman in French society, the relationships between family members, the rift between Jews and Muslims, and the extent that love will drive a person to unexpected extremes. The novel shifts between 1901, when the story begins with Simone and Cyrus contently married in the Persian mountains, to Simone’s thoughts as she reminisces about her upbringing in the Honoré household. Excerpts from Gabrielle’s memoirs serve to fill in the blanks as to Simone’s heritage.
Gabrielle’s comedic ghosts sometimes detract from what seems to be the focal point of the book—the ache in Simone’s soul—but otherwise, Courtesan is touching as it reveals a means of survival foreign to most of us. Marketed to book clubs, the novel includes a reading group guide.