If you’re like me, you enjoy giving books as presents. Lately, I’ve been combing through various book blogs and lists on Goodreads to determine what I should buy for whom this year. In doing so, the thought occurred to me that I should put together my own list of sensational reads related to France. Below are some of my favorite volumes.
There are countless novels that take place during World War II, but those written by people who experienced it first hand often stand above the pack. Such is the case with Suite Française, written by Irène Némirovsky in the 1940s. The manuscript was lost when Némirovsky, a Ukrainian Jew, was discovered by Nazi soldiers and hauled off to Auschwitz. Thankfully, it resurfaced more than 6 decades later. You can read my detailed review here. The book is available in both French and English.
All the Light We Can Not See
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a masterful piece of fiction. The story takes place during World War II and follows the lives of two central characters, Marie-Laure, a blind French girl living in Paris who is forced to flee the Nazi occupation with her father, and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan and talented tinkerer who joins the German army and ultimately ends up in France. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has it all: beautiful writing, historical accuracy, and two gripping narratives, which alternate from chapter to chapter and ultimately collide.
The Invisible Bridge
I bought The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer, after looking for fiction that would teach me something about the history of Hungary. I’m slowly starting to learn more about Eastern Europe and this book caught my eye because the story takes place in both Paris and Budapest. This is another World War II novel that reminded me of epic classics like Les Miserables or Doctor Zhivago. Orringer is a master storyteller who interweaves an impressive quantity of historical detail. I found myself in awe of her depth of knowledge. Indeed, the story is based on the lives of her grandparents. I loved the sections on Paris, learned much about conditions in Hungary during the war, and can definitively say that this book brings something new to the burgeoning mass of WWII fiction.
The Paris Wife
The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, is a fictional account of Hadley Richardson’s marriage to Ernest Hemingway. The story is anchored on the time that the couple lived in Paris, cavorting with other members of the literary jetset, such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. McLain delivers a delectable portrayal of Paris in the Jazz Age. The only way to make reading this book better would be to read it in Paris while sipping coffee in the very cafés that Hemmingway and Richardson used to frequent.
Incendies is a masterful play, by Wajdi Mouawad. Mouawad, who was born in Lebannon, fled to Paris with his family at the age of 8, during the country’s civil war. Unable to obtain permanent residency in France, the family eventually landed in Quebec where Mouawad earned a diploma from l’École nationale de théâtre du Canada à Montréal.
Incendies tells the story of twins, Jeanne and Simon, who are called to their estranged mother’s lawyer’s office for a reading of her last will and testament. There they receive two letters, one to be delivered to a father in Lebanon, whom they presumed was dead and the other to a brother, previously unknown to have existed. This beautifully crafted drama, partially based on the life of Lebanese communist militant, Soha Bechara, ends with an unexpected and priceless twist. A movie, based on the book, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards. The English translation, by Linda Gaboriau, is titled Scorched.
Le Premier Accroc Coûte Deux Cents Francs
Le Premier Accroc Coûte Deux Cents Francs was written by Elsa Triolet, a journalist and member of the French Resistance. The book is composed of 4 novellas that the author penned during World War II. In 1944, it won France’s highest literary prize, Le Prix Goncourt. While this is a work of fiction, the stories exude authenticity, having been written by an eye-witness to the time period. You’ll find my complete review here. The English translation is titled A Fine of Two Hundred Francs.
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
One of my favorite French classics is The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas. So, I was thrilled to learn that the 18th-century story is based on the actual life of Dumas’ father, General Alex Dumas who was the son of a Black Dominican slave. In The Black Count, author Tom Reiss demonstrates that true stories are often better than fiction. A meticulous historian, Reiss spent 10 years uncovering the details of General Dumas’ life. One of the remarkable elements of this story is the fact that the elder Dumas, of direct African descent, was an extraordinarily distinguished General in the French army. Yet, almost no one knew of him until Reiss’ book. This Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biography from 2013 is packed with every bit as much swashbuckling bravado as The Count of Monte Cristo and it really happened.
The Story of French
The Story of French, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, is the first history of what I find to be the most beautiful language in the world. The authors explore the lasting popularity of French, which was, at one time, the pre-eminent language of literature, science, and diplomacy. I provide a more thorough review of this book in two posts from 2020: The Mystifying Popularity of the French Language Revealed and The Story of French and How it Became a Remarkably Popular Language.
In Vino Duplicitas
In Vino Duplicitas, by Peter Hellman, is actually an American story but it recounts the talents and trickery of Rudy Kurniawan, the world’s most notorious counterfeiter of ultrafine French wine. Hellman, a journalist living in New York City, began investigating Kurniwan’s trajectory in 2008 for Wine Spectator. His research into the young and unassuming Indonesian uncovered a master con-man who managed to swindle some of the top wine producers, vendors, and aficionados in the world. I’ve written three posts on Kurniawan (shown below), relying in part on Hellman’s book. In Vino Duplicitas is a welcome addition to the bookshelves of francophiles, wine lovers, and anyone who enjoys true crime involving the rich and powerful.
- Rudy Kurniawan, Extraordinary Forger of Fine Wine
- Recent News from the World of Wine Forgery
- Con-Man Kurniawan Exits Prison then Vanishes From the Public Eye
Let’s Eat France
I borrowed this fabulous cookbook from my public library last year and am not so secretly hoping that one of my family members will buy it for me. Let’s Eat France, by French food critic François-Régy Gaudry, is as much a coffee table book as it is a cookbook, with wonderful information about French food, its history, and geographical influences. You can find my longer review here.
L’Énigma du Retour
Knowing nothing about the Haitian-Canadian author, Dany Laferrière, I stumbled upon a used copy of L’Énigma du Retour a few years ago and thought it looked interesting. I was pleased to discover that this book is a treasure for readers and writers alike.
Laferrière’s prose is unlike anything else I’ve come across. The best way I can think to describe it is stream-of-consciousness poetry. The book opens with a phone call informing Laferrière of his father’s death. The story tells of the author’s return to Haiti after a 3-decade absence, tracing the life of a parent who he barely knew. Laferrière is a keen observer that seems capable of perfectly placing each word on the page. There are few books that I vow to return to. This one is absolutely worth a second read—both to revisit the story and to reconsider the amazing craft that this author brings to his work. The English translation, by David Homel, is titled The Enigma of the Return.
Memoirs of a Breton Peasant
Memoirs of a Breton Peasant, by Jean-Marie Déguignet, is one of the most fascinating autobiographies that I’ve read. Déguignet’s work is unique because very few peasants could actually read and write. Yet, Déguignet, who was born in 1834 managed to learn French (not the native tongue in Brittany) and keep copious journals throughout his life. His manuscripts weren’t discovered until nearly a century after he died, impoverished and cast off by society. If you think that the journal of a 19th-century bumpkin can only appeal to historians, think again. Déguignet’s story has all the intrigue of a well-crafted novel. Available in French as Mémoires d’un paysan bas-breton.
En finir avec Eddie Bellegeule
Most of the contemporary memoirs from France that become bestsellers are written by privileged expatriates, describing their troubles resettling in France and setting up shop. What I love about En finir avec Eddie Bellegeule, by Édouard Louis, is that it provides a window into a part of France that is rarely even imagined here in America.
Louis, whose given name is Eddy Bellegueule, grew up gay in a working-class town of Northern France. Picture poverty, racism, homophobia, violence, poor schools, and yes, sub-standard healthcare. Louis’ often gut-wrenching childhood anecdotes paint a tragic picture of the cruel world from which he managed to escape. However, knowing that Louis wrote this book at the age of 19 and that it’s sold over 300,000 copies in France and has been translated into 20 different languages, transforms his early tragedy into triumph. I also read and appreciated Qui a tué mon père by the same author and plan to read more of Louis’ short autobiographical works. The English translation, by Michael Lucey, is titled The End of Eddy.
Anna and the French Kiss
Full disclosure, I haven’t read Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins, but my daughter Rita has and she absolutely loved it. I feel as if this book did more to endear her to France than I ever could have. Anna is an American teen who is sent to live in a boarding school in Paris for her senior year of high school. This feel-good teen romance isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. However, for the proper readership, it just might instill a desire to learn the French language and someday study in France. Such was the case with Rita and a handful of her 14-year old friends.
Petit Pays, by Gaël Faye, won Le Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in 2016. This prize is France’s equivalent of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Petit Pays is a coming-of-age story about growing up in Burundi, a country where France still has a strong influence. Many parts of this story are absolutely delightful, depicting a childhood of freedom and frolicking, not unlike that of Tom Sawyer’s. Children in this part of the world, however, often must grow up quickly. The second half of the book intermixes successive waves of danger and disorder with everyday life, as violence and civil war spill into Burundi from Rwanda. Numerous events in the book are factual and the central character, Gabriel, and his family are based on Faye’s personal history. The English translation, by Sarah Ardizzone, is titled Small Country.
The Family Under the Bridge
The Family Under the Bridge is an endearing early-reader chapter book that won a Newbery Award in 1959. Its author, Natalie Savage Carlson, was born in Virginia but lived in Paris for much of her adult life. This is the story of a Parisian “hobo” who one day discovers 3 young children squatting on his usual roost beneath a bridge spanning the Seine. He initially regards these young “starlings” as pests to be shooed away, along with their newly-evicted mother. Over time, however, he realizes that he cannot turn his back on the struggling family. Through a series of adventures, involving gypsies, a trip to the Louvre, and Santa Claus, the hobo transforms into a doting surrogate grandfather. This is a heartwarming story that gives young readers an early taste of the streets, markets, and museums of Paris.
You may be familiar with the French author, Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Modiano has written dozens of books, many of which deal with members of the French population that collaborated with the Germans during World War II. However, few people realize that Modiano is also the author of a delightful children’s novel called Catherine Certitude. Illustrated by Jean-Jaques Sempé, this book is for anyone who loves New York, Paris, ballet, devoted fathers, and the simple pleasures of life. The English translation, by William Rodarmor, shares the same title.
Aya de Yopougon
Aya de Yopougon, written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie, is perhaps my favorite graphic novel series. The 19-year old Aya is a college student, studying to become a doctor in Yopougon, an affluent suburb of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. The novel presents a cast of colorful characters, many of whom rely on Aya to help them through a variety of scrapes and scandals. Abouet’s storylines are influenced by her own life, growing up in the Ivory Coast before moving to France. Oubrerie’s illustrations add dazzling charm to each plot. This is one series I hated to see come to an end. The English translation, by Alisia Grace Chase, is simply titled Aya. You can find my longer review here.
Kiki de Montparnasse
Kiki de Montparnasse, written by José-Louis Bocquet and illustrated by Catel Muller, is a biography of Alice Prin. Prin, a.k.a. Kiki, was a French muse and cabaret singer who posed before a multitude of prominent artists that lived in Paris during the 1920s and ’30s. The book presents Kiki’s early childhood followed by an unimaginable series of encounters with artists such as Modigliani, Picasso, Cocteau, and Fujito, to name a few. Kiki’s longest-lasting partner was the famous photographer Man Ray. Art enthusiasts speculate that Kiki is the most painted and photographed artist’s model in history. She’s a fascinating figure that more people should know about. After reading this award-winning graphic novel, I wrote about Kiki in a couple of posts, found below. The English translation, by Nora Mahoney, is also called Kiki de Montparnasse.
- Kiki de Montparnasse, Muse of A Thousand Faces — Part I
- Kiki de Montparnasse, Immortal yet Forgotten Queen—Part II
In 1986, in the midst of the Soviet-Afghan war, the French photojournalist, Didier Lefèvre, traveled to Afghanistan to help document a humanitarian mission by Doctors Without Borders. Lefèvre stayed true to the assignment for 3 months, during which time he shot over 15,000 photos and lost 14 teeth due to malnutrition and exhaustion. After his return to France, most of his photos remained unpublished for nearly two decades. Fortunately, one of Lefèvre’s close friends, cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert, encouraged him to combine his snapshots with Guibert’s artwork to make a graphic novel about the experience. With the help of colorist Frédéric Lemercier, they spent 2 years creating a 3-volume graphic novel series that documents Lefèvre’s journey into Afghanistan, the medical mission, and his dangerous solo trek out of the country.
Le Photographe provides a view of Afghanistan that would be impossible to convey in a text-only format. Guibert’s accompanying artwork fills in those scenes that Lefèvre witnessed or learned of but was unable to capture satisfactorily with his camera. This is a masterwork on so many levels, suitable for fans of nonfiction, graphic novels, Afghan history, war, or the French NGO Médecins sans frontières. The English translation, by Alexis Siegel, is titled The Photographer.
Persepolis, is a 4-volume memoir, written and illustrated by French-Iranian author Marjane Satrapi. This graphic novel recounts Satrapi’s childhood, growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. When she was just 14, her parents sent her to Europe to escape the clutches of the increasingly tyrannical Iranian government and to obtain a western education. With little or no support system to welcome her in the west, Satrapi struggled mightily to assimilate. In the midst of unimaginable strain, she employed satire and her rebellious spirit to carry on without the support of her family. Satrapi is a captivating storyteller whose imagination and sense of humor ease the reader through a multitude of unfamiliar and stressful situations.
Persepolis has been translated into 24 different languages and won dozens of international awards, making Satrapi one of France’s best-known contemporary authors. The English translation goes by the same name. You’ll find my longer review here.
La Légèreté, by French author and illustrator, Catherine Meurisse, is another memoir. Meurisse survived the deadly terrorist attack on the offices of the satirical French weekly, Charlie Hebdo, in 2015. Twelve of Meurisse’s colleagues were killed in the attack. In La Légèrité, Meurisse recounts her devastating collapse following the assault and the hard-fought battle to restore her mental health and return to work as a satirical cartoonist. Despite Meurisse’s portrayal of potentially heart-wrenching subject-matter, this memoir is full of life and hopefulness. The English translation, by James Hogan & Matt Madden, is titled Lightness. You’ll find my longer review here.
Where to Buy
Many of the books listed here, even some written in French, are available on Amazon. However, if possible don’t forget your local independent bookstore. I highly recommend Bookshop.org. They have a wide selection and part of the proceeds from your order will go directly to local booksellers in your area. There’s also a fabulous new online French bookseller, named Lireka, that doesn’t charge any shipping fees. I recently priced out an order of French graphic novels and Lireka’s prices came in well under what Amazon could offer.
Are you familiar with or have you read any of these books? What did you think? Are there any books with connections to France that you have found to be sensational? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.