SCENT OF BUTTERFLIES
Butterflies are free
by Jonathan Kirsch
The exotic byways of history have provided the settings for Dora Levy Mossanen’s previous fiction, including the sizzling “Harem” and “Courtesan” and the magical “The Last Romanov.” Her new novel, “Scent of Butterflies” (Sourcebooks, $14.99), is still a work of exotica, but in a new and different way — it’s a lush, superbly narrated and highly provocative excursion into the passions and politics of love in our own tumultuous times.
The book focuses on a beguiling woman called Soraya, who describes herself as “a rich woman from a backward country,” married at 15 to a wealthy and charming philanderer and now strong enough to confront her husband with the fact that he betrayed her with her best friend, Parveneh, whose name means “Butterfly.” Indeed, she torments herself with self-interrogation and speculation: “Does Parveneh, that insect of a butterfly, lick the tips of your lashes, too, Aziz?” Soraya muses. “Does Aziz have sex with her or make love to her?”
The opening scene of “Scent of Butterflies” is already something of a scandal, thanks to the fact that the story of sexual encounter between Soraya and a mullah on an Air France flight was presented in a production titled “Saffron and Rosewater” on stages in Los Angeles and New York. The two meet by accident on the flight, and the cleric’s piety quickly gives way to sexual yearning: “The mullah brushes his arm against my bare shoulder, a fleeting touch, then runs his thumb down the length of my wrist, a bold move, flirting in public with this special treat, a Jewish woman.”
The mullah, Soraya observes, “seems to vacillate between two cultures,” and so does Soraya herself. She has lived a privileged life in Iran, as she recalls in a series of bittersweet reveries, but now the Islamic revolution and her husband’s infidelity have propelled her to America. She is truly on a voyage of discovery in the New World, but Soraya is haunted by memories of the life she left behind in Iran. In that sense, “Scent of Butterflies” offers two narratives, one set in America and the other set in Iran, each reflecting light on the other.
We learn, for example, of the custom of presenting a young girl with a nuptial cloth, signed on all four corners by a rabbi, which she “was expected to use on her wedding night to display her blood to her in-laws as proof of her virginity. Ironically, it is Soraya who reveals that she “took it upon myself to free her from her cocoon” and fatefully introduced Parveneh to her husband-to-be in adolescence. Only much later does she discover that Parveneh and Aziz have conspired against her.
Here in America, freedom means something that we might not readily guess. Soraya, for instance, designs a lavish garden in her new Brentwood home, a place “where no pasdar policemen will spring over walls to violate my privacy, and where I am free to wear shorts and a tank top, unleash my hair and breathe heavily after strenuous gardening, without fear that the rise and fall of my breasts will provoke the foul-minded, eavesdropping Morality Police.” Not coincidentally, the garden is designed to be a haven for butterflies, an object of obsession for Soraya, and for more than one reason — butterflies, she learns, can be dangerous and even deadly.
“Humans get buried under earthquake rubble, break their bones in tornadoes, drown in stormy seas,” Soraya explains. “Butterflies, despite their fragility, are hardly affected. … They simply float with the wind, staying on track with uncanny tenacity until they arrive at their intended destination, just as my friend did.”
Soraya is an artist with the camera, but even more so in the garden, where she cultivates, among the more beautiful and benign plants, a malodorous and toxic variety known as the corpse plant. To say anything more about how Soraya intends to use the corpse plant would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say that the last 50 pages of “Scent of Butterflies” is a breathless page-turner for all the right reasons — we urgently want and need to know how Soraya’s ordeal will end.
The Jewish immigrant story has been told many times, as has the tale of the wronged wife who takes revenge against her rival, but “Scent of Butterflies” is a new take on both of these themes. Rather than Brooklyn or Boyle Heights, Soraya’s destination is Beverly Hills, a fact that prompts Aziz to warn Soraya against the dangers of “Westoxification.” But the poison that runs in Soraya’s blood, we quickly see, has less to do with the seductions of the West than with the primal workings of the human heart.
By way of full disclosure, I want to affirm that the author and her family are close friends of mine. But it is also true that my wife and I were avid readers of Dora Levy Mossanen’s fiction long before we met her at a book party at the late, lamented Dutton’s Brentwood, and I remain one now. Indeed, my regard for her gifts as a storyteller are all the greater.
SCENT OF BUTTERFLIES
“Sensual and haunting…”
— Kirkus Review
“In her latest, Mossanen (The Last Romanov, 2012) examines what happens when one woman’s predictable routine, treasured relationships, and sense of self have all been shattered. Soraya’s enduring love of the natural world lets Mossanen sprinkle the scientific names of many plants and insects throughout the text, which mix appealingly with the often dreamy and lyrical narration. Fans of Elizabeth Gilbert and Kristin Hannah will appreciate Soraya’s story as Scent of Butterflies sets betrayal, forgiveness, identity, and obsession against the tumultuous landscapes of post-shah Iran and Southern California.” —Stephanie Turza, Booklist
“Beautifully written… A lyrical and poignant tale of a woman with a heart burning from the sting of betrayal and a soul tormented with the longing for home.”
— Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us
“Novelist Mossanen has outdone herself in this scintillating tale of love, betrayal and self-discovery. Soraya, the main character, taunts and plays with the reader in her journey from the confines of Tehran to the chaos of Los Angeles. With vivid details and raw emotion, Scent of Butterflies is an enticing read that touches all the senses.”
— Fariba Nawa, Opium Nation and Afghanistan, Inc.
“A novel that twists its way into the dark heart of friendship, betrayal, love, and identity, Dora Levy Mossanen’s Scent of Butterflies assumes the shape of its titular creatures, beautiful, surprisingly dangerous, and too delicate to pin down.”
— Elizabeth Eslami, author of Bone Worship and Hibernate
THE LAST ROMANOV
“Crackles with tension and imagination—an engaging story splashed upon a broad canvas. Mossanen mines an emotional landscape, rich in myth and characterization, offering an innovative perspective on what may have happened to the Romanovs. Savor the magic and enjoy the journey.”
— Steve Berry, author of The Jefferson Key and The Columbus Affair
“The Last Romanov spins a magically-laced, bejeweled look at the end of Russia’s Romanov family, as seen through the preternatural eyes of the long-lived woman bound to their fate. From the sumptuous halls of the Alexander Palace to the cramped back-alleys of the Jewish ghetto, this haunting tale of prophecy and redemption sweeps us into an opulent world of glamour, myth, tragedy, and unforgettable humanity.”
— C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici
“With the assured hand of a master story teller at the height of her game, Mossanen leads us deep into the intimate world of the last Romanovs. She weaves history and magic into a riveting page-turner that brings to life the enduring mystery of a gilded court teeming with unforgettable characters, who interact with history to create a vivid, engrossing tapestry that will haunt the reader long after the last page is turned.”
— Robin Maxwell, Bestselling author of Signora da Vinci and The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn
“A lyrical, magical, and utterly captivating story of redemption and the triumph of the human heart. The Last Romanov brings a tumultuous era of history to rich life, and re-creates in sumptuous detail the world of the Imperial Russian court. Darya’s story will hold you spellbound.”
— Anna Elliott, author of Georgiana Darcy’s Diary
A thrilling, exotic soujourn in the opulent drawing rooms of imperial Russia as the Bolsheviks tighten their noose, recounted by a member of the doomed imperial family’s inner circle. Unimaginable luxury and abasement and the magical properties of nature form the backdrop to stories of love and enduring loyalty despite a drumbeat of tragedies. The beautiful, opal-eyed Darya, veiled in butterflies, lives on hope and ambergris to reunite with her lover amid the chaos of the Soviet Union and to discover whether the heir to the Romanov throne survived.”
— Jenny White, author of The Winter Thief
“Like its heroine’s inexplicable opal eye, THE LAST ROMANOV, by Dora Levy Mossanen shimmers with tantalizing mystery and brilliance. Readers will delight in sharing the journey of the bold and self-possessed Darya through the corridors of the Russian Imperial palace during the final days of the Tsar’s reign as she cares for the young and sickly heir, finds herself the beloved muse of a celebrated Jewish artist, and grapples with Rasputin’s revelations about her ancient past. Filled with rich period detail, THE LAST ROMANOV is a testament to the enduring power of love and honor, but most of all, hope.”
— DeAnna Cameron, author of Dancing at the Chance
“You are slowly seduced like a great lover with untold secrets, fascinating family interactions, hidden relationships, steamy passion and mystical characters. Engagingly satisfying from start to finish.”
— Moll Anderson, author of The Seductive Home and Lifestyle Expert
“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
“A cross between The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The DaVinci 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
“Dora Levy Mossanen’s characters, Muslim and Jew, clash, glitter, and beckon us into a fin-de-siècle world of fantasy, sex, diamonds, greed, and madness. Drunk, we awaken in a dangerous underworld of clashing cultures—and the forbidden loves that build fragile bridges over them.”
— Ann Rowe Seaman, author of Swaggart and America’s Most Hated Woman
“… an 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
“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
“Elegant. Rich with myth, history, politics, fantasy, and life intermingled—as if the voice of an Isabel Allende of Persia has emerged.”
— Amy Ephron
“A richly imagined feminist fable—a feast for the senses.”
— Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, author of A Woman of Independent Means
“Compulsive reading right from the start. Gorgeous imagery and outrageous characters whose stories grab you and hold you enthralled till you’ve turned the final page.”
— Robin Maxwell, author of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and Virgin
“HAREM reads like a wondrous cross between Colette and Sir Richard F. Burton. The dark lights and vivid tableaux Ms. Mossanen conjures stay with you long afterward. A very impressive, and adventurous, debut.”
— Nicholas Christopher, author of Franklin Flyer
“Sexier than a stable of Playboy bunnies, more adventuresome than a Greek romance, able to confound expectations on every single page, Dora Levy Mossanen’s first novel, Harem, is truly astonishing.”
— Robert Hellenga, author of The Sixteen Pleasures and Blues Lessons
“An important contribution to the growing canon of women’s mythology in contemporary literature. From the first sentence I was as captivated as I used to be as a child when my mother read me fairy tales from around the world. The quality of myth that the author achieves is stunning.”
— Christin Lore Weber, author of Altar Music