The Best Books Set in France

Do you know, about one fifth of all people who read books read only while on holiday? Even people who are keen readers read far more on holiday than at any other time. Maybe you’re about to set off on a visit to France and you want something to read, or you’re simply a francophile. If you are either or neither, I feel sure you will find something great to read here.

One of my great pleasures is to read a book that has a very clear setting in a country, region or city, and most especially if it has vivid descriptions, whether of the landscape, the cities, the sounds, the smells or the feel of the place. Because I’ve lived in France, both Paris and “La France Profonde”, I have read and accumulated more from that beautiful country than anywhere else. So far.

I own almost exactly half of the books mentioned here and have several more on my “To Be Read”, and still rapidly expanding, shelf. A few I have only as e-books. I’ve included some I don’t currently own, and probably won’t, in order to give as wide a range as possible. Nevertheless, they are all ones I’d consider buying for myself. The covers shown are scans of my own books and so may differ from current book covers.

Some of them were originally written in French and have been translated but many have been written by native English speakers. I’m always a little doubtful about translated books because I do think something is very often lost. The ones I have listed I believe to be good translations. Occasionally a story is sufficiently good that some “clunkiness” in the translated book can be forgiven.

Rather than make an alphabetic list which could take ages for a reader to plough through, I have divided them up into sections according to genre where I can. Naturally there are some books which aren’t so easy to classify, but I still think it’s more useful than a straight list. Books which have been translated have (T) after the title.

This is probably my favourite genre, the one I turn to when I’m tired, need something easy to read, and want to escape. It’s not that other genres are necessarily harder to read or more everyday, it’s only my own personal preference.

At the moment I’m reading Martin Walker’s “The Devil’s Cave”. It’s an easy read, originally written in English. It demonstrates a very good knowledge of the Dordogne with some excellent descriptions of the countryside.

Of all of them, though, probably Fred Vargas’ novels have to top my list because they are so very different from the run of the mill crime novel. I would say her [Yes, “her”, short for Frédérique] “The Three Evangelists” or any of that particular series are well worth a try. Not only are they unusual, even quirky, but they are very clearly set in Paris, and they have been extremely well translated by Siân Reynolds.

Fred Vargas, before becoming a novelist, was an archaeologist with a special interest in the Middle Ages, and worked for the French National Centre for Scientific Research. If you’re interested, you can learn a little more about her from the video below which also features “An Uncertain Place”.

I’ve split the modern novels into three parts because there are more of them than any other category. The split is completely arbitrary, at least for the time being until I can think of a way of sub-dividing them more satisfactorily. None of this first section has been translated.

I have yet to read Roisin McAuley’s “French Secrets” though I do have the book. I’m told that she is the new Maeve Binchy but I’m not convinced that is based on anything other than her nationality.

Joanne Harris’s novels of France (she has written several more) have always been favourites of mine since my husband bought me “Chocolat” not long after our return from living in Paris. He thought chocolate and France would be a good combination for me – and he was right! I have since seen the film and, frankly, it seems like a different story.

A supernatural or magical theme runs through all of her French novels, more pronounced in some than others. Personally I enjoyed it but I would advise you not to overdose on them.

Kate Mosse’s books set in the Languedoc also have a supernatural theme to them. Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel form a series, all set in the Languedoc, while The Winter Ghosts is separate and set in the Pyrenees. I reviewed The Winter Ghosts along with other stories in an article on ghost stories. The Languedoc trilogy volumes are very long and physically heavy; be warned if you are reading, they are weighty even in paperback.

Salley Vickers’ “The Cleaner of Chartres” is almost a must-read if you will be visiting Chartres. It mentions a number of places you can find as you wander around the old city centre. It’s entertaining and readable.

The proportion of books I haven’t read is a little higher here, to include “The Ghosts of Albi” and “A Paris Apartment”. I will be looking out for “The Ghosts of Albi” because I know the city. It was often a stopping off point for us on the way home after visiting one or other of our sons in the south of France. It’s a time-travel book with a historical part set in the 12th century.

I first read “The Greengage Summer”, a coming of age novel, when I was a young teenager. I was totally captivated by it. I read it again more recently but this time my reaction was completely different. I still enjoyed it but of course now I had an adult’s perspective and appreciated different things.

Many books set in France give a very romantic view of life but Shantytown Kid and Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow (Just Like Tomorrow in the UK) are both written by authors of Algerian decent. They depict another France, the gritty urban life found in the suburbs around Paris, Lyons, and similar large cities. Not that they are grim novels, far from it, they are most enjoyable and do lend a different perspective.

Now my percentage goes right down because I’ve only read a few of these, the first being A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke. It is a humorous book about an English man taking a job in Paris and how he fares with all things French. If I’m quite honest, it’s not my style at all but I’ve included it because many people do enjoy it. The only reason I have Dial M for Merde is because my husband wanted to read it. There are several in this series of “Merde” books which have – oddly – been translated into French. It might be interesting to see how they achieved that. The titles for the French translations are all “God Save …”, for example “God Save la France”.

“The Red Notebook” has only recently been published and I’m so looking forward to reading it. One reviewer has described it as being in the style of “Amélie”, full of charm. It tells the story of Laurent who finds a handbag and tries to reunite it with its owner. The only clue is a small red notebook, a journal of sorts.

“Revolution” by Jennifer Donnelly is a Young Adult novel but if it’s anything like another of her books, “A Gathering Light”, it will be well worth the read.

I’ve recently finished reading “The Little Paris Bookshop” which turned out to be rather more set in Provence than in Paris, but still most enjoyable. Interestingly, it was originally written in German but has been translated into French and called “La Lettre oubliée”, “The Forgotten Letter”.

It’s hard to say which of these novels would be considered the most outstanding. Sebastian Faulks is probably best known for the three wartime stories listed here, “Charlotte Gray” and “Birdsong”, in particular, which became best-sellers.

“Suite Française” received massive publicity when it was published, to the extent, perhaps, that my expectations were far too high. As a result I was rather disappointed. It is a very interesting story, written at an early stage of World War II, which describes how French people coped with invasion by German troops. From that point of view it is thought provoking, but I would suggest that great literature it is not.

I’ve included “The Dream Lover” because George Sand lived not so very far away from our holiday home in France. I’m disappointed that the book doesn’t seem to cover that period (I haven’t yet read it) but nevertheless it had to be on my list.

My “must-read” of this section has to be Anthony Doerr’s book. He has won several prizes for “All the Light We Cannot See”, another view of occupied France during World War II.

This is my least favourite category of all, I’m afraid. The books’ authors consist mainly of people who have bought a wreck of a home, a doer-upper, somewhere in rural France. I have nothing against people “doing up” a place in France, it’s just that their books tend towards the self congratulatory and patronising.

“Almost French” by Sarah Turnbull is rather different because it describes very clearly the difficulties of living in France. It seems more true to life.

But don’t let my prejudices put you off. Many of the books are entertaining, especially Peter Mayle’s. He was, I think, first on that particular scene and I believe he still lives in Provence unlike may of the others.

I’ve chosen to highlight “Madame Bovary” by Flaubert simply because I mentioned Julian Barnes’ “Flaubert’s Parrot” earlier and it ties in neatly. I like making links like that, so here is another: George Sand’s “The Devil’s Pool” linking up with Elizabeth Berg’s “The Dream Lover”. You see a pattern, my reading spins a web: one book leads to another.

I’ve read all these books at one time or another. I even read “Les Grands Meaulnes” in the original French which is something of an effort for me. I normally read very quickly but French slows me down enough to make me impatient. However, this one wasn’t too bad at all because the French was relatively simple.

There aren’t so many in this category, possibly because I had a hard time deciding quite what belonged here. Marcel Pagnol’s books are often used in French lessons, in the ones I took certainly. A little more difficult was Hervé Bazin’s “Vipère au Poing” but we did study it. I have to say it wasn’t the most cheerful of subjects but the language wasn’t too difficult.

“Tales of Languedoc” is one I’ve bought relatively recently at a book fair. It is a delightful collection of stories handed down through generations of a family living in the Languedoc.

You will spot a tendency to choose books from central France in this section because that is the area I know best. “Célestine” is a wonderful and historical description of life in a village in the area, in fact in a village close to where we have a holiday home. That, of course, makes it especially appealing for me.

Of the others, I should perhaps point out Simon Schama’s “Citizens”. It is less of a light read, much more dense than most of the others, but it is beautifully written.

I very rarely read anything from this category, it’s just not my thing, but in the interests of this article, I am currently reading the last in the list. I’m enjoying it! It tells the story of a single mother living in Paris, in search of a new Mr. Right. The author does live in Paris and it shows. She describes parts of the city in detail and this appeals to the place-spotter in me.

The others in this table I have yet to read, and I doubt whether I will, but I list them because I know people do enjoy the genre.

I felt I had to add these two because they cover pretty much the same area and subject matter but one was written in the 1950s and the other in the 1990s. They make a lovely pair to compare and contrast.

So there you have it: over 100 books set in France, plus a couple of afterthoughts. It has been a huge labour of love, compiling this list, but I’ve enjoyed every minute, even while wondering if it would ever be finished.

I don’t suppose it will ever be finished really, and I’m happy for any suggestions for additions, if you want to make any in the comments below.

All I can say now is that I hope you enjoy at least some of the books on my list.

Here are some further titles suggested by a friend:

  • Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda
  • The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola
  • Bitter Almonds by Laurence Cossé
  • Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland
  • I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira
  • The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
  • L’Assommoir by Emile Zola, called The Dram Shop in at least one translation
  • The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
  • Sacre Bleu by Chistopher Moore

I’ll be reading at least some of these over the coming months so that I can tell you more about them.