Whether you're planning a trip to France or simply hope to transport yourself there through the power of imagination, reading is one fantastic way to get inspired. These 10 classic and contemporary novels set in France will take you there.
Victor Hugo's classic novel is probably best-known as an animated Disney adaptation—but reading the original is highly recommended. Set in medieval Paris, it includes rich descriptions of the city during the period (as imagined by Hugo). The novel chronicles the love story between Quasimodo, a physically disabled bell-ringer in Notre-Dame Cathedral's towers, and Esmeralda, a French and Romani dancer. Hugo's meditations on social exclusion, architecture, love, and other sweeping topics are timeless.
Muriel Barbery's 2008 novel about a Parisian concierge named Renée and the tender, complex connections she makes with a young occupant named Paloma and others has earned worldwide acclaim. Its wry observations on the fundamental awkwardness of being human and smart forays into philosophy are page-turning. Renée, a self-taught woman with a passion for art, music, and philosophy, has an inner life at odds with her outward appearance. Barbery explores the tensions between how we see ourselves, the gaze of others, and the possibilities that lie in seeking to understand another person. Everyday scenes from Parisian life are realistic and sometimes bitingly observant.
Charles Dickens may have painstakingly studied London in his various novels but in this 1859 tale, revolutionary Paris joins the cast as a leading character. It tells the story of Doctor Manette, a political prisoner who spent 18 years detained in the Bastille prison, and the political and personal drama that follows his release. After reuniting with his daughter, Lucie, in London, the action returns to a Paris marked by the violence of the Reign of Terror. Dickens' historic meditation on the dangers of revolutionary zeal remains crucial.
Set in Paris and southern France during the 1950s, this masterful but lesser-known novel from African-American writer James Baldwin is a wrenching and vivid meditation on love, erotic awakening, oppression, and repression. It narrates the story of David, an American living abroad, who's engaged to a woman but is haunted by his romantic and erotic encounters with Giovanni, an Italian barman he met in Paris. One of the 20th century's most frank, complex representations of queer desire and love, the book remains essential reading.
Published in 1844, this epic novel from French author Alexandre Dumas features themes of wrongful imprisonment and revenge, but it's also a delightful adventure full of hidden treasures, mysterious islands, and abundant intrigue. Based on a true case of wrongful incarceration, it follows Edmond Dantès, imprisoned within the fortress of If, near Marseille. Determined to escape and secure revenge, Dantès is also after treasures cached away on the Island of Monte Cristo. His travels take him to the fashionable world of Paris during the 1830s, as well as elsewhere in France,
Set on the French Riviera during a summer vacation, "Bonjour Tristesse" (which translates to "Hello, Sadness") is French author Françoise Sagan's most well-known novel. Published in 1954, the brief but absorbing book chronicles the adventures of 17-year old Cécile, who tears around the Riviera by car, lounges on beach, and attends glamorous parties, all while processing the inner torments of adolescence. The sunny setting is at odds with Cécile's struggles to accept her father's new love interest—and the family dramas that ensue.
Ernest Hemingway's autobiographical account of his youthful years living in Paris during the 1920s, "A Moveable Feast" charms through its earnest (pun intended) observations and striking reconstructions of the capital during one of its golden periods. Hemingway muses on his squalid but happy life as a broke writer who could barely afford underwear or full meals, and describes encounters with the likes of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Funny and often deeply moving, the memoir is nostalgic and tender.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, this historical novel from British author Jeanette Winterson is certainly not typical of the genre. Poetic, stream-of-consciousness style language, a narration that flutters through time and space, and characters that at times seem startlingly modern set the book apart. It follows Henri, a French solidier first stationed in Napoleon's camp outside Paris, and Villanelle, a Venetian, who eventually meet in Russia. Carnivalesque, haunting, and richly textured, this is a novel that draws an improbable bridge between dream and history.
Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier
Alain-Fournier isn't especially well-known in the English-speaking world. But his 1913 novel, "Le Grand Meaulnes" (sometimes translated to The Grand Estate in English) has quietly risen to be considered one of the greatest French books of the 20th century. Sometimes compared to JD Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," it's narrated by 15-year old François Seurel. The young protagonist recounts his friendship with Augustin Meaulnes, a character who emerges as the novel's romantic hero.
That Fournier perished in battle during the first months of World War I, in 1914, makes his only novel seem all the more poignant and worth reading.
Labyrinth by Kate Mosse
This historical fantasy novel set in medieval and present-day Carcassonne has captured readers for its imaginative yet accessible prose—and fantastic storytelling. A new spin on the search for the true Grail, it features a young archaeologist named Alais who is given a mysterious ring imprinted with a labyrinth. It also plunges you into the strange, riveting world of 13th-century France, when a Christian sect called the Cathars were made targets of terrible violence and religious persecution.