Books to Read if You’re Going to France

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 Moveable Feast by 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 by Anne Sebba

If you’ve ever wondered what life was like for women in Paris during the World War II 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.

Almost French by 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 Year in Provence by 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 by 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.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke

If you’re looking for 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 this jovial review of France’s history.

Classic Fiction

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Many titles of classic literature focus on characters of status in society but, in Les Miserables, Victor Hugo tells the stories of several impoverished but colourful characters battling through life in 19th century France. He starts with a peasant freshly released from 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his starving sister. You can’t help but warm to the individuals and desperately want things to get better for them.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

A false accusation lands Edmond Dantes in prison and so starts an epic revenge-laden adventure and page turner. The story takes place during the reign of Louis-Philippe of France, and follows Napoleon’s return to power, following his first exile, giving the reader an insight into France during that period.

The Rougon-Macquart series by Emile Zola

This 20-novel series follows one family’s experiences through France’s second empire, and explores the impact their environment has upon them and their descendants. Reading all 20 is a fantastic project but, if you don’t have time to read them all, The Fortune of the Rougons, A Love Story, Germinal and Nana make great standalone reads.

Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

This novel follows a shameless social climber manipulating just about everyone he meets to make his way to the top, highlighting the hypocrisy of perceived social status in French society during the 1800s.

Modern Fiction

Historical fiction set during World War I and II

Suite Francaise by 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.

All the Light We Cannot See by 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.

The Nightingale by 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.

Birdsong by 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.

Set in Paris

Paris by Edward Rutherford

If you want to absorb Paris history via fiction, Edward Rutherford’s Paris is just the thing. It shares the stories of six families from different walks of life across 700 years of Paris history.

The Paris Wife by 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 by 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 by 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.

Books set outside Paris

Chocolat by 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!

Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin

For something more rural, Water for Flowers introduces us to a cemetery caretaker in Bourgogne for whom a chance encounter sets off a series of events that uncover curious details of her past.

Men don’t cry by Faiza Guene

This novel is about family and defining a path for yourself. The story shares a humorous look at sometimes difficult topics such as culture shock and the immigrant experience in France.

The Book of Lost and Found by 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.

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