French culture is one of the most effusively lauded in the world. Maybe it is because of its commitment to art, the penchant for war, or its strong national identity or all of them, but whatever the case, France has knitted a multifaceted culture with so many strings attached. Today it is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world, but not many people can afford a trip to France or be there all the time. However, by reading a novel or short story, we can get a sense of what it is like in the beautiful land of wine, cheese, and croissants.
To help transport you to France through the power of words, here are some of the best books about France you can read now.
Books you should read before visiting France
How to Be French – Margaret Ambrose
For Margaret, the city of Paris was a place where dreams turned into reality – an enchanted city where beauty, style, and elegance were the ultimate ambition. But being stuck on here less-than-satisfying job meant she didn’t enjoy most of her time in the city as she would have hoped. To help alleviate her stress, Margaret started studying French for a few hours per week. However, her life started to fall into place when she landed the job that she loved at an online women’s magazine. The new job allowed her to traverse the country to file stories, interview megastars and reviewing French films.
Basically, How to Be French is a book about the challenges of learning a new language as well as an inspiring story about how massively your life can change when you decide to pursue your dreams.
This is Paris – Miroslav Sasek
Written by Miroslav Sasek and published by Universe Publishing in 1959/2004, This is Paris Book is one of the best travelogue books on the market today. Not only is this book visually appealing, but it will also take you on a thrilling journey through the city of Paris. Paris is a home for one of the most amazing bookshops in the world – Shakespeare and Company.
The author begins by talking about the more than 10 million people living in Paris. He describes that there is this big river (Seine), dozens of churches, monuments, museums, and numerous cats.
Reading this book is like taking an actual stroll in Paris. It is an example of a clean and informative text with a hint of mischievousness that even the young kids will love. Accompanying the content is a cartoonish rendition, sketched in a sensational manner, and which made the author a household name.
While you can get the gist of Paris life and its people while reading the text, the detailed pictures truly capture the heart, both for their aesthetic and for the incredible, day-to-day life detail that has been infused into them.
This is Paris gives us a glimpse into Paris’s past in a manner that will delight kids and adults. At the end of the book, you will find a small passage detailing the changes that have happened since the book was first published in 1959, both sad and interesting changes.
How the French Live – Siham Mazouz
Si Mazouz, who is known for her popular blog FRENCHBYDESIGN, presents a number of sophisticated French families in her debut book titled How the French Live to engage and inspire readers. The author shares the personality and values of each family through the lens of their unique styles of homes. The home aesthetic is clean and unpretentious, décor features are electric – replicating each family’s Frenchness regardless of where they live. Each chapter of the book ends with a family recipe to prolong the warmth of the hospitality they shared.
This is the new paragon of a generation living the French lifestyle in France, Morocco, and the United States.
The book features well-selected photos depicting real living conditions in France, though it is a bit staged or sterile than the typical modern lifestyle. The rooms shown in the book represent true homes or at the very least, tell the story of an actual, occupied, house.
Si Mazouz is a French-born author and after spending her childhood in the country, she expatriated in San Francisco. She is known for her blog FRENCHBYDESIGN, where she compiles daily a selection of interiors, house tours, or DIY projects. Professionally, she is a strategic marketing and social media consultant.
Perfume – Patrick Suskind
Published in 1985, this masterpiece walks the reader through a city that is quite different from the modern day’s Paris. It centers around the 18th century France where “there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women…Even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter.” But amidst this foul-smelling world lurks the remarkable character with a “killer” sense of smell. His name, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, he “so thoroughly smelled out the quarter between Saint-Eustache and the Hotel de Ville that he could find his way around in it by pitch-dark night.”
Les Misérables – Victor Hugo
Considered by many as one of the finest contemporary works of literature, this French historical novel follows on the lives and interactions of a number of characters but more so the grafts of the ex-convict, Jean Valjean, and his freedom encounter.
The setting of the novel (between 1815 and 1832), takes the reader on a journey back to life in 19th century France. While the book is set more than a century ago, its cultural impact still echoes the political and literal modern world, as every one of us would experience.
Les Misérables has different subplots, but the most fascinating one is the main character’s struggle. Although he successfully turned his life around and became a noble force, he didn’t quite shake off his previous felonious life.
The novel is categorized into five volumes, each of which is further divided into numerous other parts, which subsequently are divided into different chapters. And because of this, the book is considered among the longest ever written books in history. In total, Les Miserables consists of 48 books and 365 chapters, which makes it a much longer book by contemporary standards.
This book talks about a wide range of topics including human rights, politics, architecture, politics, moral philosophy, religion, and urban Paris design.
Over the years, the book has been adapted for television, stage plays, and film.
My Life in France – Julia Child
This book about France was authored by Julia Child and published in 2006. Child spent the last months of her life with her Alex Prud’ Homme, her husband’s grand-nephew. After her passing in 2004, the book was completed and published by Prud’ Homme in order for the world to learn about the author’s fascinating life story.
It contains everything that Julia had a passion for, including her husband as well as her love for cooking. The book is set from 1948 to 1954 and it entails mostly the author’s culinary experience with her husband, Paul Child, during their time in Marseille, Paris, and Provence.
Parts of the book comprise of datebooks, family letters, sketches, photographs, cards, and poems. We get a clear insight into the author’s life, including her name, face, as well as voice.
The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
Published in 1845, the Count of Monte Cristo is an exploration book authored by Alexandre Dumas and one of his famous sui generis. The author is remembered for the iconic Three Musketeers, which was also written around the same time.
But the Count of Monte Cristo is based on an entirely different storyline set in Italy, France, and a number of Mediterranean islands. The book is based on significant events that took place between 1815 and 1839, a period called Bourbon Restoration during the reign of Louis-Philippe.
The story begins prior to the Hundred Days era after Napoleon returned from exile to take over the reins for the second time.
The dominant themes of the book are justice, vengeance, hope, and so on. The book has also influenced many writers and bodies of works, and its adaptation is one of my favourite movies.
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See was published in 2015 by Anthony Doerr. It involves the relationship between two dissimilar friends – a German soldier and a blind French girl – and set during WWII.
The book won a Pulitzer Prize for its impressive storyline. The author writes about the mythological and intimate, about fate and love, about armies on the move and snails in the beach, and history and those gasping, the agonizing moment when they all come crashing together.
It is a tender exploration of the world’s paradoxes – the splendor of the laws of nature and the dreadful ends to which war undermines them; the immutability of a moment and the healing power of time; the weakness and resilience of the human heart.
French Women Don’t Get Fat – Mireille Guiliano
This book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” is all about how to lead a healthier, happier life after learning the secrets that make French women maintain their petite bodies. It clarifies the French paradox, which is how the French people eat chocolate, butter, and bread daily yet they don’t gain weight.
The author provides strict and applicable tips on how to live and eat healthily. She proposes that you don’t follow diet books, rather, eat reasonable amounts of delightful, seasonal foods.
60 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong – Jean Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow
Co-authored by Jean-Benoit and Julie Barlow, 60 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong is a book centered on the politics, economy, and history of the French people. It is categorized into three sections – the French lifestyle, French history, and future predictions.
If it is your first time in France, this book will teach you a lot of things you didn’t know about the country and its people.
The Sweet Life in Paris – David Lebovitz
David Lebovitz, just like many other authors, fantasized about living in Paris since the first time he visited the City of Lights and after an almost twenty-year career as a cookbook author and pastry chef, he finally moved to the city to begin a new life. He arrived at his apartment in Bastille neighborhood with high hopes, but soon it dawned on him that it is a different world in France.
Things were different in France and it seemed like a whole new world, from learning the inflexible rules of social behavior to the etiquette of eating the French staple food, from the mysteries of men’s footwear to the shopkeepers but in the end, David Lebovitz fell in love with Paris.
The point he discovered he had morphed into un vrai parisien is when he found himself thinking about buying men’s dress socks embossed with cartoon characters. or was it when he dressed up just to take out the trash because he had accepted that appearances and image in Paris mean everything?
The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery
Muriel Barbery is a French philosophy teacher and novelist and the author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog – a book that recounts the events in the life of Renee Michel, a concierge whose intentionally hidden intelligence is unmasked by an unstable but intellectually advanced girl named Paloma Josse.
The book includes allusions to literary works, films, paintings, and music and it incorporates motifs related to class consciousness, philosophy, and personal conflict.
The narrators of the novels are the main characters – Renee and Paloma, who present the ideas and events of the novel through thoughts and reactions.
Renee’s story is addressed to us, while Paloma’s is presented in the form of a notebook with overflowing with “profound thoughts.” However, both characters create articulate little essays on time, the meaning f life, and beauty.
A Year in Provence – Peter Mayle
This novel by Peter Mayle talks about the author’s first year in Provence as well as the local customs and events. The book was so successful that it was adapted into a television min-series.
The book narrates the events following Peter and his wife, who moved to Provence but soon met with unanticipated severe weather, underground truffle merchants, and boisterous workers who work around their normalement schedule.
Food in Provencal restaurants and work on the author’s homestead, vineyard, and garden are all featured in the book.
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
Written in 1859, A Tale of Two Cities is a historical novel set in Paris and London before and during the French revolution. The book narrates the events around the life of a French doctor named Manette and his 18-year-long incarceration in the Bastille in Paris and his discharge to live in with his daughter Lucie, whom he had never met, in London.
The story of the book is set against the conditions that foreshadowed the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret – Brian Selznick
This historical fiction book was written and illustrated by the American author Brian Selznick and is set in France. It is about a young boy that finds his purpose and is based on the true story of French filmmaker Georges Melies along with his surviving films and collections of mechanical, wind-up figures called Automata.
Almost French – Sarah Turnbull
As she was backpacking her way across Europe, Sarah Turnbull was ready to embark on her last escapade before returning home to Sydney. However, a chance encounter with a charismatic Frenchman in Romania’s capital Bucharest changes all her plans forever. Acting on impulse Sarah agrees to visit the guy, Frederic, in his Paris home for a week.
In the beginning, she faces cultural clashes, but as she navigates the highs and lows of this new and strange world, little by little, she falls under the spell of Paris.
Chocolat – Joanne Harris
Chocolat is a novel by Joanne Harris that tells a story of a young single mother who moves to a small French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes with her six-year-old daughter during Lent. The mother, Vianne Rocher, along with her daughter Anouk, has arrived on this side of the world to open a chocolaterie – La Celeste Praline – which is located across a church. Since it was the beginning of Lent, Vianne gently changes the lives of the people in the village who visit her with sympathy, subversion, and magic.
But this is a season of fasting and self-denial and the presence of a confectionery shop amidst the community poses a problem, which scandalizes the village priest, Francis Reynaud, and his supporters. This subsequently creates a division within the community as Easter approaches, pitting the ritual of the church against the indulgence of chocolate, thus Vianne Rocher and Father Reynaud face an unavoidable showdown.
Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow – Faiza Guen
Kiffe Kiffe is derived from the Arabic phrase “kif-kif” which means “same old, same old” or “it’s all the same.” The narrator of the book is a 15-year-old Muslim girl named Doria who lives in a housing project on the outskirts of Paris.
Doria is a bitter girl because of the many things happening in hers and her family’s life. First, her father has gone back to Morocco to marry a second wife since Doria’s mother is unable to conceive a son. Her mother, Yasmina, is uneducated and to make ends meet, she has to do cleaning chores in a motel where she is “…paid three times zero.”
But in the end, things take a turn for the better as Doria goes to a new school, her mother gets a new job, and she even lands a first boyfriend, who motivates the witticism that informs the title of the novel. In French, “Kiffer” loosely means “to be really crazy about something.”
A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemmingway
This memoir was written in 1964 by American author Ernest Hemingway to detail his years as a struggling emigrant journalist and writer in Paris in the 1920s. The book also talks about the author’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson as well as his relationship with other cultural figures of the Lost Generation in Interwar France.
Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan
Bonjour Tristesse (Hellow Sadness) is a 1954 novel by Francoise Sagan inspired by the poem by Paul Eluard called “A peine defiguree.” The novel is set in the French Riviera and is about 17-year-old Cecile who lives in a villa with her father Raymond along with her father’s new mistress, Elsa- a young, superficial, fashionable girl.
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