Books to Read if You're Going to France

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One of the world’s most visited countries, the wealth of literature about life in France comes as no surprise. With so many people jotting down their take on the country, there really is something for everyone. Memoirs, tick. Historical fiction, absolutely. There’s loads of non-fiction for those wanting to learn more about France too, and foodie books, bien sur. What a pleasure for Francophiles the world over!

My bookshelf is pleasingly overflowing with titles about or set in France. It is probably the largest collection, by country, in my possession. This is the longest list I’m publishing in my little series of ‘Books to read before you go’. Obviously, I don’t imagine people would necessarily read all of these titles before visiting France (or perhaps even at all) but, hopefully, the list introduces one or two new titles and provides a distraction until the next trip!

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favourites.

A Year in Provence – Peter Mayle
The ultimate escapist novel for those dreaming of a new life in rural France, the amusing story that follows a couple making a new life in a Provence, with gastronomic, building and plumbing adventures thrown in. An oldie but a goodie.

C’est la Folie – Michael Wright
Similarly, this slightly more recent story follows a disillusioned south Londoner who, in his search for a more meaningful life, makes a new home for himself and his cat in the Limousin.

Almost French – Sarah Turnbull
This is a modern-day tale of an Australian journalist’s experiences when she takes a trip to visit a handsome Frenchman in Paris and ends up staying. Those with an Anglo background will appreciate the observations and inexplicability of certain experiences.

A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
This autobiographical work of Hemingway’s tells the story of his early days as a writer in Paris, and all the literature, art and feasting he managed to enjoy. It gives an insight into his younger years. The 1920s are considered the city’s heyday, and a golden age for expats and literary types judging by all the name-dropping in this book. His observations of others are mostly ungenerous, and the level of amusement offered will probably depend on your appreciation of Hemingway. It also includes lots of references to places and cafes that still exist today, which I enjoyed.

The Parisiennes – Anne Sebba
If you’ve ever wondered what life was like for women in Paris during the occupation years, this book offers a fascinating insight. Told through many, many, testimonies, the book explores the extreme choices women faced daily between defiance and collusion, and the consequences. Confronted with the reality of that time, it was not an easy read but I loved learning more about this period and the women featured.

The Only Street in Paris – Elaine Sciolino
Describing itself as ‘part-memoir, part travelogue’, this book introduces the reader to the many characters that give Paris’ Rue des Martyrs a lively village feel. It tells the story of how the author befriended the shopkeepers and traders of the street, and celebrates a way of life that is being lost to mass-commercialism. It is a pleasant read; it feels like a chat with a friend that moved there years ago.

1000 Years of Annoying the French – Stephen Clarke
If you’re after an amusing introduction to the history of France, told with a generous helping of English humour and sarcasm, look no further. Get comfy though; it’s almost 650 pages. I enjoyed reading this but I’m no history buff so chose to dip in and out, which meant it took ages to finish it.

Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
A love story, war epic and family saga told through two timelines. The first is a British soldier’s experiences in pre-war France, and during World War I. The second is the story of his granddaughter trying to uncover his story in 1970s London. The novel is especially human, perhaps, because of its exploration of the effects of trauma on individuals, and its hero’s regular expressions of his very understandable fear during the war.

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
From the beginning of the book you can tell the paths of a blind French girl and a young German boy are set to cross during World War II. The very touching story takes place in Paris, St Malo and Berlin. It is told from both children’s perspectives. I really enjoyed the detail in the writing and the strong and caring characters, which created a very rich and emotional read.

Chocolat – Joanne Harris
This much-loved novel pitches chocolate, and all the wickedness it represents, against church when a mischievous chocolate shop owner moves to a small French village. Reading this, you will fall for the characters…and probably get hungry!

The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah
Two sister’s dangerous wartime stories are told in this book. The first sister’s experience is of rural life under occupation, including quiet resistance while having to house a German officer. The second sister’s story is about her activity as part of the French Resistance movement. I enjoyed the book’s focus on women’s experiences and different types of heroism during World War II.

Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky
This book was inspired by the author’s own experiences of Paris life during the early years of World War II. It contains two storylines: the first, the experiences of Parisians fleeing their occupied city, the second, the stories of the occupants of a rural village under occupation. I found the character observations made the story very engaging. Apparently the two storylines were supposed to be two of five the author had planned before she was killed at Auschwitz.

The Book of Lost and Found – Lucy Foley
This story follows Kate on a journey to discover more about her maternal grandmother, after the sudden death of her mother. The story spans from the 1920s to the 1980s and takes place in Paris, Corsica, London and New York, uncovering a great love story on the way. I enjoyed the dual timeline.

The Paris Wife – Paula Mclain
This story is historical fiction and tells the story of Hemingway’s life in 1920s Paris, but from the perspective of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Romantic and shocking in turn, it focuses on their love for one another and the writing is rich in atmosphere and sweeping descriptions.

Paris Echo – Sebastian Faulks
This book is an interesting exploration of some of Paris’ history through the experiences of two outsiders living in the modern-day city, one an American researcher, the other an illegal immigrant. I enjoyed the focus on identity, and the way the same situation was sometimes viewed from different perspectives, as well as the interesting titbits of information about Paris – namely the history behind the metro station names.

The Age of Light – Whitney Scharer
This book tells the story of Lee Miller’s battle to transform herself from Vogue model and muse to photographer and war correspondent in the 1930s, a time when women really didn’t do those kinds of things. I enjoyed being reminded of when photography was as much about developing prints as framing a shot, and the dips into the Paris of a few decades ago.

The Da Vinci Code – Robert Langdon
This murder-mystery is set in the Louvre and involves cracking a code of curious symbols to ensure an ancient truth is not lost forever. It also raises questions about faith and ideology, albeit in a rather light fashion. It’s an easy read, if you fancy an unchallenging Paris-based mystery.  

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George
This is a whimsical tale celebrating books, reading, and the many reasons people read. It features a man acting as book-apothecary operating from a book-filled barge on the Seine until one day he has reason to cast off and journey along France’s Rhone river. I enjoyed the idea of books having a medicine-like therapeutic effect.