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The Best Books Set in France

Reading for me has been an escape, entertainment, a teacher, even a lifeline, and I love to share this passion with other people.

Why Read 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.

Just a few of my collection of books set in France

Just a few of my collection of books set in France

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.

Crime and Mystery in France

AuthorTitleSetting

Fred Vargas

Seeking Whom He May Devour (T)

Alps

Fred Vargas

The Three Evangelists (T)

Paris

Fred Vargas

The Chalk Circle Man (T)

Paris

Martin Walker

Bruno, Chief of Police

Dordogne

Martin Walker

The Devil's Cave

Dordogne

Patricia Highsmith

Ripley Under Ground

near Fontainebleau

Alys Clare

The Joys of My Life

Chartres

MC Beaton

Agatha Raisin and the Deadly Dance

Paris

Claude Izner

Murder on the Eiffel Tower (T)

Paris

Claude Izner

The Marais Assassin (T)

Paris

Jean-Claude Izzo

The Marseille Trilogy (T)

Marseille

Scan of Fred Vargas' "The Three Evangelists" book cover

Scan of Fred Vargas' "The Three Evangelists" book cover

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".

About Fred Vargas and "An Uncertain Place"

Modern Novels Set in France, Part 1

AuthorTitleSetting

Joanne Harris

Chocolat

SW France (Gers)

Joanne Harris

Blackberry Wine

SW France (Gers)

Joanne Harris

Four Quarters of the Orange

Loire

Joanne Harris

The Lollipop Shoes

Paris

Roisin McAuley

French Secrets

Bordeaux

Salley Vickers

The Cleaner of Chartres

Chartres

HE Bates

A Breath of French Air

Brittany, NW France

Kate Mosse

Labyrinth

Carcassonne and Chartres

Kate Mosse

Sepulchre

Carcassonne and Paris

Kate Mosse

Citadel

Languedoc under German occupation

Kate Mosse

The Winter Ghosts

The Pyreneees

A scan of the cover of the novel, Chocolat, by Joanne Harris

A scan of the cover of the novel, Chocolat, by Joanne Harris

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.

Modern Novels Set in France, Part 2

AuthorTitleSetting

Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (T)

Paris

Rumer Godden

The Greengage Summer

Champagne Region

Susan B Kelly

The Ghosts of Albi

Albi, SW France

Tracy Chevalier

The Virgin Blue

Cévennes, SW France

Paul Gallico

Flowers for Mrs Harris

Paris

Peter Mayle

Hotel Pastis

Provence

Azouz Begag

Shantytown Kid (T)

Lyons

Faïza Guène

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow (T)

Paris

Julian Barnes

Flaubert's Parrot

 

 

Cross Channel

Short stories

 

Something to Declare

Short stories

Michelle Gable

A Paris Apartment

Paris

Scanned book cover of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

Scanned book cover of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

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.

Modern Novels Set in France, Part 3

AuthorTitleSetting

Stephen Clarke

A Year in the Merde

Paris

Stephen Clarke

Dial M for Merde

South of France

Nina George

The Little Paris Bookshop

Paris, Provence

Antoine Lauraine

The Red Notebook (T)

Paris

Paula McLean

The Paris Wife

Paris

Anita Hughes

French Coast

Côte d'Azur

Anna Gavalda

I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere (T)

Short stories

Kathleen Tessaro

The Perfume Collector

Paris

Elizabeth Bowen

The House in Paris

Paris

Jennifer Donnnelly

Revolution

Paris

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".

Historical Fiction

AuthorTitleSetting

HE Bates

Fair Stood the Wind for France

Rural occupied France 1944

Patrick Süskind

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

18th century France

Anne and Serge Golon

Angélique series

Poitou and Paris

Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong

WWI

Sebastian Faulks

Charlotte Grey

WWII

Sebastian Faulks

The Girl at the Lion d'Or

WWII

Irène Némirovsky

Suite Française (T)

WWII

 

Fire in the Blood

Burgundy

Charles Belfoure

The Paris Architect (T)

WWII

Alexander Fullerton

Single to Paris

WWII

Gabriel Chevalier

Clochemerle (T)

Rural France

Dornford Yates

The House That Berry Built

 

Elizabeth Berg

The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand

Paris

Martin Walker

The Caves of Périgord

Dordogne

Jean Bruller

The Silence of the Sea (T)

WWII

Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See (T)

WWII

Cover of the book "Suite Française" by  Irène Némirovsky

Cover of the book "Suite Française" by Irène Némirovsky

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.

Personal Stories

AuthorTitleSetting

Helen Stevenson

Instructions for Visitors

SW France, near Spain

Carol Drinkwater

The Olive Farm

Provence

Sarah Turnbull

Almost French

Paris

Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence

Provence

Peter Mayle

Toujours Provence

Provence

Tony Hawkes

A Piano in the Pyrenees

Pyrenees

Elizabeth Bard

Lunch in Paris

Paris

Elizabeth Bard

Picnic in Provence

Provence

Rosemary Bailey

Life in a Postcard

Pyrenees

Ruth Silvestre

A House in the Sunflowers

Lot et Garonne

Ruth Silvestre

A Harvest of Sunflowers

Lot et Garonne

Richard Goodman

French Dirt

South

Alex-Dingwall-Main

The Luberon Garden

Provence

Susan Loomis

On Rue Tatin

Normandy

Jeremy Mercer

Time Was Soft There

Paris

Scanned cover of "Toujours Provence" by Peter Mayle

Scanned cover of "Toujours Provence" by Peter Mayle

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.

Classic Fiction

AuthorTitleSetting

Victor Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (T)

Paris

Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the Opera (T)

Paris

Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary (T)

Near Rouen

Alain Fournier

Les Grands Meaulnes (T)

Solognes, central France

Henry James

The Ambassadors

Paris

Joris-Karl Huysmans

The Cathedral (T)

Chartres

Robert Louis Stevenson

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

Cévennes

Alphonse Daudet

Letters from my Windmill (T)

Provence, Corsica

George Sand

La Mare au Diable (T) "The Devil's Pool"

Rural central France

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.

Modern Classics

AuthorTitleSetting

Hervé Bazin

Viper in the Fist (T) Vipère au Poing

Angers

PG Wodehouse

French Leave

Roville sur Mer (fictitious)

Michèle Roberts

Daughters of the House

Normandy

Georges Simenon

Maigret series (T)

Paris

Marcel Pagnol

Jean de Florette (T)

Provence

Marcel Pagnol

Manon des Sources (T)

Provence

Samuel Jacques Brun

Tales of the Languedoc (T)

Languedoc folk stories

Scan of the book, "Tales of Languedoc"

Scan of the book, "Tales of Languedoc"

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.

History

AuthorTitleSetting

Jeffrey H Jackson

Paris Under Water

Paris

CW Gortner

Mademoiselle Chanel

 

Claude Michelet

Firelight and Woodsmoke (T)

Central France

Claude Michelet

Scent of Herbs (T)

Central France

Claude Michelet

Applewood (T)

Central France

Gillian Tindall

Célestine

Central France

Emilie Carles

A Wild Herb Soup (T)

Alps

Simon Schama

Citizens

French Revolution

Alex Karmel

A Corner in the Marais

Paris

Lucinda Holdforth

True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women in Paris

Paris

"A Wild Herb Soup" by Emilie Carles

"A Wild Herb Soup" by Emilie Carles

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.

Chick Lit in France

Linsey Kelk

I Heart Paris

Paris

Molly Hopkins

It Happened in Paris

Paris

Leah Marie Brown

Faking It

Provence

Emily Barr

Plan B

South of France

Sandra Byrd

Bon Appetit

Lexie Elliott

The French Girl

Catherine Sanderson

French Kissing

Paris

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.

Travel Literature (101 + 2)

AuthorTitleSetting

Mort Rosenblum

The Secret Life of the Seine

Ile de France

Robert Gibbings

Coming Down the Seine

Ile de France

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Addendum

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: I will be visiting friends living in Samoreau in the Fontainebleau area and have been looking for a book to read set in /near here, but cannot find any. Do you have any suggestions please, for fiction/historical fiction set in the area?

Answer: As far as I can tell, there are very few books which feature Fontainebleau, but I do have a few suggestions.

First is "Murder at Fontainebleau" by Amanda Carmack, which is a very light historical novel, set in 1561. Second is "The Poet: Book One in the Forest of Fontainebleau Series", a fairy-tale/fantasy romance. I suspect this is more fantasy than Fontainebleau but it may give some atmosphere.

Both Henri IV (with Marie-Antoinette) and Napoleon (with Josephine) spent time at the Chateau, so if you look for novels around these historical figures, you may well come across some featuring Fontainebleau. Some examples could be, "Young Henry of Navarre" by Heinrich Mann, "The Three Musketeers" by Alexandre Dumas, or Sandra Gulland’s Josephine trilogy.

There is also a nice memoir, "Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France" by Thad Carhart, set in the 1950s. It tells the story of a childhood in France, with the Chateau of Fontainebleau as a near neighbour.

Alternatively, and this is going off at a tangent, the Chateau and the Forest have been used as locations in a number of films, such as The Man In The Iron Mask (1998), Marie Antoinette (2006), Napoleon (1955).

I hope I have managed to give you some ideas, and that you enjoy your time in the area. I'm sure you will!

Comments

SheilaMilne (author) from Kent, UK on December 19, 2017:

No I haven't heard of it. I'll look it up. Thanks for telling me about it.

john on December 18, 2017:

Have you heard of The Idle Pursuit of Pleasure by Peter Katsirubas? It is a very unique story set in 1920's Paris.

Kathleen on April 01, 2017:

I read a book a few years ago which followed the fortunes of a family in the Champagne area of France during WWI and WWII. I thought the book was simply called 'France' and by Noel Baker but I can't find anything corresponding to this. Can anyone help?

Jasmeet Kaur from India on January 30, 2016:

What a collection.Very detailed!!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on May 31, 2015:

You're welcome. Gotcha! No worries. I saw that play a long time ago. But I love Only on my own as my favorite song. I didn't even see the movie version a few years ago.

SheilaMilne (author) from Kent, UK on May 31, 2015:

Thank you Kristen!

Well, I had to draw the line somewhere and I didn't like Les Miserables (shh, don't tell anyone). I found it really hard to decide what to include, I must say.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on May 30, 2015:

Great hub, Sheila. It's very detailed and useful. How come Les Miserables isn't listed on the list? Wasn't it based on a novel? Voted up!

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