When friends ask me questions about my country, sometimes the easiest way to explain our culture and quirkiness is simply by handing them some books about France. Like these.
France has such rich literature and so much history that no list could ever do it justice, not to mention the innumerable contemporary novels and memoirs that immortalize this or that corner of my country.
Putting together a list of the best books about France is as impossible as (at least for me) as climbing Mont Blanc in sandals in winter.
But that doesn't mean I can't try!
So I made a list...
Next thing I knew I had notes on more than 100 books, from books on France history to French literature classics to books on living in France.
At this rate, the list would be published sometime around 2056, so instead, I decided to put this up as a work in progress. Each week, I'll add books to it, until I (or you) feel we have enough.
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This list is aimed at non-Francophones who are passionate about France and want to learn everything they can about us. And...
- Each section is in whimsical order. I've tried alphabetical, but... it's complicated.
- I have read SOME of the books. Friends of mine have recommended others.
- Just because a book is filed under a certain period heading doesn't mean that's when it was written. So if someone writes a book on World War II this year, I'll file it under World War II.
Contemporary fiction books about France
"Even before it was adapted into the Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, Joanne Harris' New York Times bestselling novel Chocolat entranced readers with its mix of hedonism, whimsy, and, of course, chocolate." —Amazon
“If you enjoy the work of Marilynne Robinson, Penelope Fitzgerald, James Salter…you should be reading Vickers.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World.
A cleaning woman with a past works at the Chartres Cathedral (you'll love the descriptions). Soon she will have to confront her past.
The phenomenal New York Times bestseller that “explores the upstairs-downstairs goings-on of a posh Parisian apartment building” (Publishers Weekly).
"In an elegant hôtel particulier in Paris, Renée, the concierge, is all but invisible―short, plump, middle-aged, with bunions on her feet and an addiction to television soaps. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo."
This heartfelt and award-winning novel follows four Parisians of different ages and backgrounds who randomly happened to become roommates. Each is burdened with their own set of worries and sorrows, finding themselves united in their loneliness and struggle to find their place in this world.
The author manages to create something meaningful: a connection with the four protagonists and with it a deeper understanding of the Parisians and their day-to-day life. While this is one of those books set in Paris, it is not about Paris, but about the Parisians who inhabit it. (Recommended by Lena of Salut from Paris)
This is a coming of age story about a Muslim teenager from a suburban Paris housing project, a part of Paris no visitor ever sees. It paints a picture of immigrant life, which can be difficult, but is full of hope. Highlights the clash of cultures, the issue of illiteracy and the position of women in this culture.
Book 1 of the Languedoc Trilogy, where an archeologist makes a surprising discovery about an event and a secret that took place 800 years ago – the secret must be kept. For lovers of the Carcassonne region and 12th-century France.
The Little Paris Bookshop is the wonderful story of a Parisian bookseller nursing a broken heart. The protagonist, Jean-Perdu, runs a book barge on the Seine, aka The Little Paris Bookshop, which he refers to as his literary apothecary. Passersby will step upon his barge, explain what's troubling them and Jean-Perdu will find the perfect book to "cure" them.
It's only when he opens a long-lost letter from a former lover that he sets out on his own journey of healing and self-discovery. He travels in his barge from Paris to Provence, meeting many characters on the way who offer both entertainment and enlightenment.
Translated from French, this book gives an insight into French culture, French attitudes and the different areas of France between Paris and Provence. Cities you'll discover along the way include Saint-Mammès, Cepoy, Briare-le-Canal, the Loire Valley, Chalon-sur-Saône, Cuisery, Lyon, Avignon and more. A must-read for Francophiles and bibliophiles. (Recommended by Laura at What's Hot?)
If you like French detective series books with a strong no-nonsense heroine, you'll like Aimée Leduc... and this is how a Paris medical student inherits a detective agency and launches a career. The Berlin Wall, a cheating boyfriend and Nazi gold are all somehow involved.
In this series of mystery novels set in France, soldier-turned-policeman Benoît Courrèges, the eponymous Bruno, solves mysteries while serving the community of Saint-Denis (in real life, Le Bugue, where Walker lives), wooing women and drinking wine, a slow jaunt through the French countryside.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Walker, a former bureau chief for the Guardian in Moscow and Washington, DC, weaves in international intrigue, local history, French politics and — of course — French bureaucracy. He has a formula but a very good one and very entertaining. (Recommended by Brad)
by Edward Rutherford
This is a heavy tome, one of those bricks you eye twice before starting, but it's worth every page. It's not the greatest literature but as a sweeping history of Paris from 1261 to 1968, it is perfect, a giant among French historical novels that brings several historical periods of Paris alive.
It does so through characters that are intertwined, relatives and descendants dancing through time together, weaving their stories through one another and through time.
Definitely one of the best books set in Paris if what you're looking for is the sweep of history. I thoroughly enjoyed the read.
A secret piano shop a story of musical friendship and the reawakening of a childhood passion, all disposed in a special Paris.
Here's how the publisher describes it: "Intertwined with the story of a musical friendship are reflections on how pianos work, their glorious history, and stories of the people who care for them, from amateur pianists to the craftsmen who make the mechanism sing."
This is contemporary historical fiction with two storylines: one follows a young Jewish girl arrested during the Nazi Occupation of Paris Vel'd'Hiv roundup, a shameful page of Parisian history, while the other follows a journalist research that raid on its 60th anniversary. The book provides a strong picture of the Occupation and of the complicity of Vichy bureaucrats, which France is still trying to come to terms with.
A rather explicit affair between a young American college dropout and a French girl in provincial France during the 1960s, with plenty of room for rural France to paint pictures in our minds.
This book about France looks at the country differently: it traces the lives of three West African immigrants in France – a teacher in Senegal who follows her boyfriend back to France; a French-born lawyer summoned back to Senegal by her father; and an abandoned widow with little hope beyond a vague contact in France.
The author is the first black woman to ever win the prestigious Prix Goncourt, so it is very French in approach and a challenging, intelligent read.
A cult classic about a provincial pre-teen who comes to Paris to ride the Métro and when she finds it (in true French fashion) on strike, proceeds to tumble into a series of adventures that will allow her – and us – to discover Paris. Full of wit and humour, quirkiness and charm. Captivating and endearing.
French fiction books before, during and after World War II
All The Light We Cannot See is a beautiful book, as it should be, written as it is by a Pulitzer Prize winner.
The story is about a blind girl hiding in Saint-Malo and a German boy, forced to fight in the war, whose destinies meet. It deals with the war, with the intensity of the characters' thoughts and feelings, but also provides a captivating look at Saint-Malo during World War II. (Reviewed by Cláudia Bastos of Travel Drafts)
The author was a shocking 18 years old when she wrote what became a cult novel of growing up, love and the Riviera: a young wealthy girl spends the summer with her partying father and his mistresses. New love interests are involved, with complex relationships of an unexpected maturity. A very French novel.
A New York Times bestseller about love and resilience and war. Amazon: "With courage, grace, and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of World War II and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women's war."
Gay Paree and the 1920s: Between the wars
I'm not going to say much about this classic vision of Paris in the 1920s by an outstanding American writer. It's not so much about the plot and story but about the extraordinary writing.
What's interesting about this particular edition is that it contains some sketches we haven't seen before – including some events we didn't know about, and portraits of other expat writers. It was a heady time in Paris between the wars, a time of high energy and even greater creativity, especially among the throngs of Americans who discovered how inspiring (and incredibly inexpensive) Paris then was.
Jean de Florette (and its companion book Manon of the Springs, Manon des Sources) is a deep and epic excursion into small-town Provence, its landscapes and its characters. Both were made into exceptional films. These are classics of modern French literature and if you happen to read French fluently, read the originals but if not, go for the translations. You may never want to part with your copy. One of the best novels about France.
A uniquely stylish novel of Paris between the wars, with a nightclub, colourful characters, a bit of decadence, homosexuality, artists, politics, tragedy, collaboration – fiction, but based on someone who existed.
From French Revolution to First World War
by Guy de Maupassant
Guy de Maupassant was an astute observer of late 19th-century Paris and this second novel, all about human foibles − sex and power − takes place against a backdrop of France's North African colonies. In it, he traces the ascension of a corrupt journalist, and his observations about betrayal and manipulation would work just as well today. Add to this his sharp and critical gaze at the emergence of the city's bourgeoisie and you have a classic.
Billed as an historical geography, The Discovery of France covers the history of France from just before the Revolution to the First World War, the period where France moves from a collection of "pays" with quite different languages and ways of life to a (more or less) unified nation during the Belle Epoque. You'll learn about the first tour de France — not a bicycle race! — the cagots, and the murder of Cassini's geometer. (Recommended by Brad.)
This is the 17th novel of Zola's 20-volume Rougon Macquart epic (I'm on Volume 2 right now) but it is apparently one of the most powerful, and explicit. As with the rest of the books in the series (they all stand alone, by the way), Zola takes apart every detail of the time and place and describes individuals as though he were using tracing paper on their every feature. Passion, jealousy, murder − and the railway all feature prominently in this late 19th-century tale of violence and corruption.
Set in the mid-1800s, a romantic Piedmontese nobleman flees Italy and travels through Provence on his way back home – but a cholera epidemic is raging, along with mistrust and imprisonment of foreigners. A slow read of beauty. "Perhaps no other of his novels better reveals Giono's perfect balance between lyricism and narrative, description and characterization, the epic and the particular."
The Ladies' Paradise is a love story, of course, but also a snapshot of French 19th-century history. It is the 11th of the 20 books in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series (to which we've already been introduced) and there's little better if you want to get a feel for the Second Empire under Napoleon III. To say that it is the story of a department store won't do it justice, but that is at the heart of this story, along with the many relationships between shop staff and customers.
I know it as 'Lettres de mon Moulin', which my mother used to make me practice dictation as a child. The author tells us stories of 19th-century Provence in a light-hearted and folksy voice, bringing an already vivid landscape even more alive through its everyday people.
First published in 1862, this famous tale focuses on the Parisian underworld and the fascinating history of the revolutions and social reform that occurred during that time. It is a timeless classic, and I dare you not to cry.
The version I had growing up had 12 volumes. I started it and then spent the next week devouring every word.
"Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean − the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread − Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time."－Amazon
Passion and romance and revolution are the backdrops of this other classic by Flaubert, at a time when the world as he knows it is in full turmoil. In the words of the author, this is "the moral history of the men of my generation". One of the great French novels of the 19th century.
It is the 1889 World Exposition and a woman drops dead of what seems an accidental cause. But is it? Perhaps there was something more nefarious at play? Victor Legris, a bookseller, plans to find out, casting light not only on the mystery but on 19th-century Paris. Complicated plot but great portrayal of the city. The first of six books in the series.
This historical novel is set during the Second Restoration, that time between the end of Napoleon's empire and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy with Louis XVIII. It is the story of Julien Sorel, a young French provincial man, who rises in French society through both talent and cunning. This is truly a classic of French literature, which exposes the social structure of 19th-century France, its manners and classes and behaviour.
Literature and History in Earlier France
This was the beginning of satire in royal France, where one could take a few pot-shots at the aristocracy without losing one's head – but when Molière's plays first appeared they were banned by the government. In the end, his plays were accepted, at a time when France was positioning itself as a temple of culture under Louis XIV.
A fabulous story of murder and aroma in 18th-century Paris. A man with a unique skill, his sense of smell, tries to capture the one odour that is out of his reach. I don't want to tell you more. (I read this and was riveted by the intelligent detail and the unusual story line. A scary bit or two.)
Other non-fiction books about France
by Emile Chabal
This book is quite a feat: at 224 pages, it covers the period from World War II to the present, and provides the foundation for understanding France. It's the book you need to read if you want to "get" what France is like today, quickly, in a well-written style.
This husband and wife team do something very cool and very French, illustrating the history of France through foods and foodways. In one chapter, Hénaut and Mitchell link the French skepticism (until recently) of vegetarianism — see the uproar in Lyon over a vegetarian day in school cafeterias — to the Cathar heresy. Or their chapter on the "Socialist Baguette". (Recommended by Brad)
De Gaulle was such a central figure in modern French history that this award-winning book will shed quite an in-depth look at the general and his era.
The book is filled with detail, perhaps too much so, but it does provide an enlightening look at a character who is still a reference point in today's France.
I recently visited his home and memorial museum in the Haute-Marne, an absolute must if you want to deepen your understanding of this giant of a man.
Published in 2003, this book is a bit outdated, because even in France, things change. We are now 67 million, 10% more than we were back then, our Presidents rule for five, not seven years, our regions have been consolidated from 22 to 13 and some new departments created and so on.
But this is possible the most helpful France books I've ever read about how things work here, and who is responsible for what. Even if things have changed somewhat, you'll still get plenty from it. It manages to simplify a bureaucracy that usually feels impenetrable. I only wish the authors would come back to France and update it!
This book is not about what you may think it is, the French Revolution. Its subtitle is "Emmanuel Macron and the quest to reinvent a nation", and that's what it's about.
The author, a journalist (The Economist), traces an unknown Macron's rise to power and the initial part of his first mandate (there have since been new French elections which brought him back to power in a minority government).
Unfortunately the book stops early in Macron's term, which makes it difficult to use as a foundation to understand today's French politics. That said, it does say a lot about how a country so anchored in centralization and bureaucracy managed to elect a relative unknown to the highest job in the land.
At 848 pages this is not a short read, but it is a relatively breezy one, moving quickly along. That said, it is packed with details but you can skip through those you don't need the first time around – this is the kind of book you can return to over and over.
It is the perfect introduction to the French Revolution, without which it is difficult to understand the France of today.
Contemporary memoir books about France
Has anyone NOT read this?
A Year in Provence is a travel memoir about the year the author and his wife spent in the Luberon village of Ménerbes in Provence in the early 1980s (there has since been a sequel, My 25 Years in Provence). He provides great insight into their daily life in France, along with the challenges they face and the new things they learn.
The book is divided into months, beginning with the purchase of the house in January and the decision to stay in December. The author shares his passion for French cuisine and explains their increasing immersion into French culture: they learn to play traditional boules, and are introduced to the world of truffles. This is a classic, translated worldwide, and put Ménerbes on the map, some would say making it too famous. (Recommended by Places of Juma)
by Bill Buford
Bill Buford, the author of Heat, uses his humour and passion in the kitchen to tell us about his tumultuous move to Lyon and his new life there with wife and twin toddlers. He doesn't speak French but doesn't let that stand in his way. He has a few names on his list whom he hopes will help him find work so that he can learn the culinary secrets of Lyon, and he throws himself into learning the secrets of French cuisine. If you love food and love France, this will be a real treat, deep, detailed and personal.
Felicity Cloake, best known as a food columnist for the Guardian in the UK, takes on the classic food of France – but not in the luxury you’d expect: she takes to the streets, cycling with her trusty steed Eddy, over hills and vales, to find the best dishes in France.
She stops for a croissant every day, keeping a running rating system to catalogue her journey.
This book uncovers two very different sides of France: traditional French cuisine and the grittier side of cycling and camping through backroads. Felicity blends five-star dining with crushed pastries in her panniers at a damp campsite to present France in a way you’ve never seen it before.
As a bonus, this professional food taster offers classic French recipes we can all enjoy, wherever we are in the world. (Reviewed by Nina of Nina Out and About)
When American newlywed Julia Child first moved to France with her husband in 1948, she was not at all the francophile she would become after sampling the food, shopping in local markets and familiarizing herself with the culture. She didn't even speak French.
But she fell in love with the country, its people and its food, learning to cook, to argue with produce sellers, and eventually becoming a teacher and starting to teach French cuisine.
This book traces her arrival in France, her daily struggles to learn French cooking, and her battles to get her first cookbook published, before she became one of the most famous chefs of the 20th century.
Books about France that don't fit into any other category
The Astérix series are graphic novels, Tintin style, rather than narrative books, but no self-respecting francophile can afford to ignore this feisty little Gaul and his village's fight against Caesar's legionnaires during the Roman occupation of Gaul. Astérix and his partner in crime, Obélix, successfully keep their tiny village out of Rome's reach, the only Gallic village to escape Caesar's troops.
There's plenty of history, laughter and caricature, and of course the Gauls always win against the hapless Romans because of the magic potion their druid feeds them before they go into battle.
Rendez-vous in Cannes tells the story of two women. The first one, Anna Carson, is a famous movie producer attending the Cannes Film Festival for the first time in years. The other is journalist Daisy Harris, invited to cover the festival.
As the story unfolds, the paths of these two different women will cross in the most unexpected ways, and the Cannes Film festival will change their lives. The book provides an intense feeling of the lifestyle and atmosphere of Cannes the city and its film festival, as well as the Riviera more generally. (Reviewed by Cami Neves of Travel Cami).
Have a book to suggest? (No more memoirs written by non-French writers, please.) Then send me the title, the author, and 2-5 sentences about why it should be included as one of the Best Books on France (and let me know whether you'd like me to use your name as the recommendation).
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－Header Image credit Benh LIEU SONG
, CC BY-SA 3.0
, via Wikimedia Commons
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