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The Best Books Set in France

Updated on December 17, 2016
SheilaMilne profile image

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 | Source

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 very often something is 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

Author
Title
Setting
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 | Source
An Uncertain Place
An Uncertain Place

This is the book mentioned in the video below. I haven't added it to the main list because it's set not only in Paris but also in London and Serbia. It's as excellent, in my view, as all Fred Vargas' books are.

 

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

Author
Title
Setting
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 | Source

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

Author
Title
Setting
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
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 | Source

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 I had an adult's perspective this time.

Modern Novels Set in France, Part 3

Author
Title
Setting
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

Author
Title
Setting
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 | Source

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

(click column header to sort results)
Author  
Title  
Setting  
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 | Source

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

Author
Title
Setting
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

Author
Title
Setting
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" | Source

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

Author
Title
Setting
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 | Source

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.

Travel Literature (101 + 2)

Author
Title
Setting
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: 101 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.

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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      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!

    • SheilaMilne profile image
      Author

      SheilaMilne 2 years ago from Kent, UK

      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 profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      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.

    • Jasmeetk profile image

      Jasmeet Kaur 18 months ago from India

      What a collection.Very detailed!!

    • profile image

      Kathleen 3 months ago

      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?

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