French summer reading list 2018: Top 11 English language books set in France

MyFrenchLife™ - - Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier - French summer reading list 2018: Top 11 English language books set in FranceAs Summer is coming, there’ll be more time to enjoy reading, be it while lying on a sandy beach or in the refreshing shade of a tree. It’s a perfect time to wander away from the constraint of the book club and become immersed in our French summer reading list – an eclectic selection of 11 English language books where France plays the starring role.

Since the idea of a book club of recently-translated French novels took shape, and came to life in the MyFrenchLife™ realm (the website, the community page and the Goodreads group), the ongoing discussions with members and readers led me to develop a list of novels written by native English speakers which are related to France.

Indeed, being the facilitator of a book club is a thrilling and enriching experience, but it can also be a frustrating one on both sides, as one gets to read one book at a time, imposed by the chosen theme and timeline. At some point, it becomes a question of reading survival to enlarge one’s horizon.

So let’s allow ourselves to become immersed in an eclectic selection of 11 books set in France, outside the resrictions of any book club!

French summer reading list: Historical fiction

  1. The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B – (1999) by Sandra Gulland

MyFrenchLife™ - - Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier - French summer reading list 2018: Top 11 English language books set in FranceHistorical fiction is my favorite genre and had always had a soft spot for the future Empress Josephine. I mainly remember from history classes that she had been vilified and rejected for not being able to produce an heir to Napoleon and I felt sorry for her.

Sandra Gulland does her justice in this book, which I literally devoured! It’s the first one of a trilogy, so you can ‘binge-read’ them to know absolutely everything about the post-French-Revolution era and this fascinating character.

More info – Goodreads:
Buy to read:
  1. Pure – (2011) by Andrew Miller

MyFrenchLife™ - - Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier - French summer reading list 2018: Top 11 English language books set in FranceAuthor Andrew Miller was invited, a few years ago, by Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co, to present his latest book ‘Pure’. He said that he was a former student of the acclaimed British historical fiction author Rose Tremain and that she had influenced his writing.

It’s a beautifully written novel that takes place deep in the heart of 1785 Paris and is about the destruction of ‘Le Cimetière des Innocents’ (The Cemetery of the Innocents).

More info – Goodreads:
Buy to read:

  1. The Reinvention of Love – (2011) by Helen Humphreys

MyFrenchLife™ - - Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier - French summer reading list 2018: Top 11 English language books set in FranceThe title caught my attention (a famous quote by Rimbaud “Il faut réinventer l’amour”) as well as the name of its protagonists:  Victor Hugo, his wife Adèle and the renowned literary critic Charles Sainte-Beuve. Charles, Adèle and, to a lesser degree Dédé (her youngest daughter) are the three voices of this historical fiction novel, written in the present tense but covering the three decades of their story.

A story which revolves around the short-lived love affair between Charles and Adèle, its consequences and how it continued to haunt them long after the cheated husband and famous writer put an end to it.

So… it’s about Adèle, not Victor!

More info – Goodreads
Buy to read:

  1. The Paris Wife – (2015) by Paula McLain

MyFrenchLife™ - - Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier - French summer reading list 2018: Top 11 English language books set in FranceThis is a book that captures the roaring twenties, the so-called Lost Generation of American artists in Paris, focusing on Hemingway and the story of his marriage to Hadley Richardson.

You will not stroll in Montparnasse or the Left Bank again with the same eyes’

More info – Goodreads:
Buy to read:

  1. Priscilla, The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in War Time France – (2013) by Nicholas Shakespeare

MyFrenchLife™ - - Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier - French summer reading list 2018: Top 11 English language books set in France

A review of this book in The New York Times Weekend Edition of 18-19 January 2014 entitled ‘Secrets to surviving in occupied France’ commenced by the following question the author had asked his aunt when a childWhat did you do in the war, Auntie?” and then continued “…Priscilla Thompson was long dead when her nephew Nicholas Shakespeare was moved to find an answer.”

Perfect grabber, I wanted to have the answer right away too and it was not long before I had ordered the book online!

More info – Goodreads:
Buy to read:

  1. All the Light they Cannot See – (2015) by Anthony Doerr

MyFrenchLife™ - - Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier - French summer reading list 2018: Top 11 English language books set in FranceThis is an indispensable book by a best-selling author that takes place during World War II France and which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in which the destiny of a young blind girl and a German boy collide.

More info – Goodreads:
Buy to read:

  1. The Race for Paris – (2015) by Meg Waite Clayton

The three protagonists are two British female war correspondents and a military photographer who travel from Normandy to Paris in the summer of 1944.

It’s an engrossing story filled with adventure, romance, and historical elements.

More info – Goodreads:
Buy to read:

French summer reading list: Non-fiction

  1. Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of J B Kennedy, S Sontag, & A Davis – (2012) by Alice Kaplan

“What Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis owed to their time abroad and how their American fame reverberated back to France are the questions at the heart of the book, a triptych of three young women’s cultural, academic, and social lives in Paris and a study of influence in several directions.” (book blurb)

More info – Goodreads:
Buy to read:

French summer reading list: Fiction set in recent times

  1. Paris in the Present Tense – (2017) by Mark Helprin

Jules Lacour, an aging cellist, is a Holocaust survivor as a young child. At the end of his life, he embarks upon a plan that will both validate his life and ensure that love continues.

There is, of course, more to this story than those two lines, in which Paris, as suggested by the title, plays a central part!

More info – Goodreads:
Buy to read:

  1. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau – (2014) by Graeme Macrae Burnet

MyFrenchLife™ - - Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier - French summer reading list 2018: Top 11 English language books set in FranceGraeme Macrae Burnet’s 2016 novel ‘His Bloody Project’ was Man Booker Prize nominee and this is how I first discovered this writer. I learned he was Scottish, had lived for several years in France and he had been influenced by French detective stories author George Simenon.

Hence the setting of ‘The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau’ -a small village in France and the genre – a literary mystery novel.

More info – Goodreads:
Buy to read:

  1. The Rain Watcher – by Tatiana de Rosnay

I have not read this book yet but all the reviews concur for praising it. The book has just been published in French under title ‘Sentinelles de la Pluie’ and will be available in English in October 2018. Tatania de Rosnay also writes in English and is the best-selling author of ‘Sarah’s Key’. In her own words:

“I wanted to write about a son who finds the courage to talk to his ailing father at last, about himself, about who he really is. And I wanted to describe the city I love, the city I was born in, Paris, flooded by a catastrophic natural disaster that could very well happen today: the river Seine bursting its banks.”

More info – Goodreads:
Buy to read:

Why is Paris a source of inspiration for writers?

As I was doing some research on this French summer reading list, I came across another relevant book, ‘Paris was Ours’.  It is a collection of memoirs by thirty-two writers compiled by Penelope Rowlands in which they all justify their love for the ‘City of Light’.

In the end, the question she asked herself could well be ours to ponder:

“Why of all the places I’ve lived, did Paris affect me the most? For, although I’ve lived in half a dozen cities, this one left the deepest mark.”

Have you read any books on our French Summer reading list? Are you particularly attracted to one? Please also answer the last question – it’s a tough one! Let us know in the comments section below.

About the Contributor

Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier

After teaching for 20 years abroad, I mostly live now in Paris, where I feel both like a native and an expat. I enjoy being part of My French Life™ as it makes my life in Paris even more meaningful and special. I have a passion for literature and movies. I share my thoughts in my blog and on twitter.”

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  1. Alisa Landrum Jun 15, 2018 at 8:40 AM - Reply

    I vote for The Reinvention of Love.
    Have read the Josephine trilogy, enjoyed them, well-researched. Hard to tell what is real and what is fiction, though.
    I read Pure and it is perhaps not for a general audience; not everyone will enjoy the admittedly gory details of the cemetery. (I loved it, though!)
    I read The Paris Wife and it was good but Hemingway is a bit cliché.
    WWII novels are getting old for me.
    (Gosh I sound cranky!)
    So I vote for Hugo. 😀

    • Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier Jun 16, 2018 at 6:26 AM - Reply

      Bonjour Alisa,
      Thanks for your comment. I just found out that Paula McLain’s new novel ‘Love and Ruin’ is about Hemingway’s third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, but this one is not set in Paris. Are you going to read ‘The Reinvention of Love’ (or did you read it already)? Is there another book of fiction set in France which you would have liked to see in this list ? It was not easy at start to select only a few.

      • Alisa Landrum Jun 16, 2018 at 10:08 AM - Reply

        I think it is a great list, Jacqueline, and there is plenty there to please all tastes and no need to add more.
        Yes, I just ordered The Reinvention of Love and am looking forward to reading it. Victor Hugo and his family is a fascinating topic – he was such a complex individual and his family so broken – daughter Adèle is the subject of a heartbreaking movie, “l’Histoire d’Adèle H” (starring Isabelle Adjani) by Truffaut. And Hugo’s complicity with his grandchildren is so touching.

  2. Leslie Ficcaglia Jun 16, 2018 at 7:41 PM - Reply

    I’ve read The Paris Wife and All the Light We Cannot See. McClain’s book finally enabled me to read A Moveable Feast; Hemingway’s persona had turned me off to it until then.

    I was surprised that I was unfamiliar with so many of the books on this list. I have an extensive library of books about France; one which I would strongly recommend is W.S. Merwin’s The Lost Upland: Stories of Southwest France. The first tale is more of a novella. Beautifully written and atmospheric, it tells of a France that is rapidly fading.

    • Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier Jun 23, 2018 at 9:19 PM - Reply

      Thanks Leslie for your recommendation. I will have a look at W.S. Merwin’s book. I am originally from the South of France, so no doubt I’ll find familiar topics in it. You know , there are so many books set in France and written by anglophone writers that it’s completely normal we can’t have read them all. Hence a good reason for sharing our favorite reads!

  3. Janet Halls Jun 20, 2018 at 5:20 AM - Reply

    Merci, Jacqueline! All the Light We Cannot See is beautifully written and difficult to put down. The Sandra Gulland series is fascinating — It would be a good read prior to visiting Josephine’s Chateau de Malmaison, near Paris. For me, capturing the spirit of Paris and France is like trying to describe dappled light along a path, under a canopy of swaying trees. It’s so easy to be mesmerized by a multitude of things in this rich country and culture. Thanks for sharing your list — I look forward to reading new perspectives of France and Paris.

    • Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier Jun 20, 2018 at 5:27 PM - Reply

      Bonjour Janet, I was very much touched and moved by your comment. You have poetically and beautifully expressed your love of France and I thank you for that. Is there a book which is not featured in this list you would have added ? (considering it would have to be rather recently published, written originally in English and based in France of course?).

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