September 16, 2019

Butterflies are free

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.