The best books about Paris you need to read

Here are some of the best books ever written about about Paris, according to authors in France. How many have you read?

The best books about Paris you need to read
Photo: Kyu/Flickr
The Only Street in Paris
France's cook book king David Lebovitz recommends recent release The Only Street in Paris, by Elaine Sciolino. 
“She captures a small part of Paris (the rue de Martyrs), a microcosm of the city, and it reveals much about French culture as she describes the pastry shops, fish markets, fromageries, and other businesses that line one of my favorite streets in Paris,” he tells The Local. 
“Time has changed the feel and composition of the neighborhood, as it has to the rest of Paris, and she does a remarkable job chronicling how France has held on to its past while at the same time, works to maintain what makes it so special.”
Tableau de Paris (Panorama of Paris)
Elaine Sciolino herself says Louis-Sébastien Mercier's classic is “the forgotten jewel of French literature”. 
“One of the best ways to experience the smells, sounds, sights, and feel of Paris on the eve of the French revolution is to plunge into Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Tableau de Paris,” she says.
“Mercier was the first street reporter of Paris. He wandered the streets with his notebook, recording the habits and customs of all sorts of people: prostitutes, police, street vendors, beggars, philosophers, priests. 
“Mercier was more than a detached observer. He opened conversations with just about anyone. Immediacy, not deep analysis, was his objective, so he is easy to read. His Tableau de Paris is a never-ending source of discovery, a forgotten jewel of French literature.” 
500 Buildings of Paris
Author and blogger Lisa Anselmo can't go past photo-filled gem by Kathy Borrus. 
“I’m one of those people who can’t get enough of nostalgia, architecture, history, and trivia—oh, and Paris. This book has all of this, and I’m completely obsessed,” she says.
“Originally 1000 Buildings of Paris (how I would have loved that), the abridged edition is just as packed with photos, facts, and some jaw-dropping trivia about the buildings and monuments that make the City of Light, beautiful and interesting.”
Anselmo is the author of My (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home. Buy it here
Zazie dans le Métro (Zazie in the Metro)
British author Stephen Clarke suggests Zazie dans le Métro by Raymond Queneau.
“There are all sorts of interpretations of this novel – that one character is the angel Gabriel or that it's a parody of Homer, but I enjoy reading it as a joyful comedy about a young “provinciale” coming to 1950s Paris because she's always dreamt of riding on the Métro, and getting embroiled with a bunch of seedy underworld characters,” he says.
“Queneau's language is a delight, he puns all the time and transcribes words phonetically so that every sentence becomes a joke. Most of all though, the café and street scenes are just so brilliantly Parisian.”
Clarke's latest book is “Merde in Europe”. Read more here
Paris, Trance

Blogger Adam Roberts recommends Geoff Dyer's 1998 novel Paris, Trance. 
“Geoff Dyer's hypnotic tale of dance music, ecstasy, friendship and self-discovery in 1990s Paris corresponds in many ways with my own early experiences of the city in the same period,” he says.
“His Paris is an unusual one, an exotic playground that exists in the thrilling present rather than a nostalgic past. I was already a big fan of Dyer, an extremely visceral and charismatic writer, before he published this novel, so having the city I was seeing described in his words was a powerful treat.” 
Adam Roberts is the creator of the Invisible Paris blog and the author of the Paris Cityscopes guide that will be published in spring 2017.
The Flaneur: A stroll through the paradoxes of Paris
Paris-based US author Pamela Druckerman claims Edmund White's novel from 2001 changed her perceptions of the capital.  
“I read it soon after moving to Paris over ten years ago,” she says. 
“White was the first person I encountered who acknowledged that, despite Paris's many charms, it is perfectly rational to feel adrift and even a bit depressed here. He made me feel like I wasn’t nuts – and that I wasn’t alone. Isn't that what books are for?”

Paris: The Secret History
Paris-based British author and journalist Peter Gumbel's favourite is Andrew Hussey's 2006 classic Paris: The Secret History.
“It's a riveting and highly original account of the French capital as experienced by those living in its soft underbelly – the thieves, urchins, prostitutes, and other sans-culottes who have been every bit as important for shaping the city's culture as the aristocrats, grand visionaries and intellectuals who are usually celebrated.”

Bel Ami
Paris-based author Matthew Fraser has gone for Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant. 
“I read this about twenty-five years ago and have re-read many times. It's a fascinating study of social ambition and moral corruption in late 19th century Parisian society,” he says.
“In my opinion Bel Ami is the French 'Great Gatsby'. In truth, not much has changed since time of Maupassant — especially his portrait of Parisian journalists and their connections to the rich and powerful.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


10 of the best novels about life in rural France (apart from A Year in Provence)

We asked some writers to name the best novels about life in rural France apart from the classic A Year in Provence. Here's what they came up with. (And no, there are no books about Paris here.)

10 of the best novels about life in rural France (apart from A Year in Provence)
Photo: racorn/Depositphotos
The Ghost Riders of Ordebec
“Fred Vargas is my favourite novelist,” says author and comedian Ian Moore. 
“Her multi-award winning crime novels, in particular the Commissaire Adamsberg series of which this is the seventh, are so atmospheric you can almost taste them.
“Adamsberg is based in Paris but quite often the unusual, often haunting cases take him elsewhere, this one to Normandy. 
“The descriptions of the characters and how the local history and geography, the small town/rural claustrophobia, plays a part in the development of those characters and the narrative itself is a feast to read. “
Moore has also written about life in rural France – check out his first book – A la Mod: My So-Called Tranquil Family Life in Rural Francehere on Amazon.
The Debt to Pleasure
Another recommendation from Ian Moore, this time for a book by John Lanchester. 
“Food is the essence of France, a reason and method of celebration but also of superiority and snobbishness,” Moore says.
“Seen through the eyes of John Lanchester’s brilliant, sinister creation, Englishman Tarquin Winot, this is a mysterious, wonderful ‘road trip’ through France and ‘modern life’ itself. It’s beautifully written and the wicked Tarquin is one the great modern ‘anti-heroes’.
“And, it has recipes!”
Moore's latest book on rural France is called C'est Modnifique!: Adventures of an English Grump in Rural France. Find it here
Blackberry Wine

Author and columnist Samantha Brick recommends this novel from Joanna Harris. 
“Her descriptions of village life are on the nose and would chime with most expats,” she says.
“She always manages to utilise all of the senses in her writing; you can taste and smell exactly what she describes. Her talent is rare and magical. I envy anyone who has yet to discover her writing.”
Brick herself is no stranger to writing about rural France – find her book “Head Over Heels in France: Falling in Love in the Lothere on Amazon
Samantha Brick, clearly a big fan of Joanna Harris, adds that you can't got past her hit novel Chocolat. 
“This beautifully written novel expertly weaves scene after scene, combining all of the senses – especially taste and touch – in an utterly magical narrative,” says Brick. 
“Having lived in a rural French village for years now, I truly believe she's captured the essence of life – especially the suspicion towards outsiders – that exists in the French countryside.”

The Nightingale
Journalist and author Deborah L. Jacobs recommends this novel by Kristin Hannah.
“This tale of two sisters from a fictitious Loire Valley village provides a vivid view of French rural life before and during the Nazi occupation,” she says.
“Narrated in the first person by one of them (for most of the book we aren’t sure which one), now elderly, the action shifts between past and present as the story grows increasingly complex. These two very different people find unique – and risky – ways to resist the brutality that has torn their country and lives apart. Meanwhile, we become engrossed in their loves, family dynamics and the secrets they carry with them until the end.”
Jacobs is the author of the new book, Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about how she quit the job from hell, rented her New York City townhouse and planned to Airbnb her way through rural France. 
Heads Above Water: Staying Afloat in France
This book by Stephanie Dagg is a must-read, says France-based author Vanessa Couchman. 
“She and her husband and school-age children moved from rural Ireland to even more rural Creuse, a department in central France, where they started a fishing gite business,” she says. 
“The book relates the experiences of their first two years with humour and realism. 
“What I like about the book is that it’s not about retired people spending their golden years in the sun, but about a family who negotiate the trials of restoring a property, fathoming the education and administrative systems and living in a very rural community where facilities are sparse.
Check out Vanessa Couchman's blog, Life on La Lune, here (where you can find out about her most recent novel The House at Zaronza, set in early 20th-century Corsica and at the Western Front during WWI.
Diary of a French Herb Garden 
This 2002 book by Geraldene Holt “gives you a real flavour of village life in the southern Ardèche”, says Sheila Milne, who has previously written about the best books set in France
“It tells the story of the restoration of an old and dilapidated walled garden into a community garden filled with aromatic plants and herbs. The process is described month by month in the form of a diary, with diagrams and planting plans so that anyone can attempt something similar. I did try myself, with limited success,” she says. 
“But it's more than just a gardening book, much more, because of the beautiful descriptions of life in France accompanied by intriguing snippets of information about the uses of herbs.”
Seeking Whom He May Devour 
Another book by Fred Vargas, also recommended by Milne.
“My second choice is a complete contrast to the first.  It is a crime novel by Fred Vargas who normally sets her books in Paris. The setting here though starts out in a village in the Alpes Maritimes where there are rumours of a werewolf on the loose. A woman is murdered and Commissaire Adamsberg comes to investigate,” she says. 
“My fascination in the story stems not so much from 'whodunnit' as the route taken by the so-called werewolf. It traces a journey through rural France towards Paris and ultimately England. It's fun to try to relate the place names to real ones. For instance is Chateaurouge based on Chateauroux, or Poissy-le-Roi on Noisy-le-Roi?” 


Bonjour Tristesse 
The 1954 classic by Françoise Sagan can't be missed, says journalist and author Helena Frith Powell.
“I read it as a teenager and it stayed with me,” she says. 
Written when Sagan was still a teenager, it's a coming-of-age tale of a girl's struggle to come to terms with her father's new love interest. 
“At once tragic, beautiful and evocative, it's written very simply but with an incredible, almost cruel insight.
“Plus it's the perfect holiday read as it's set on holiday in the south of France.”
Second Harvest
This 1930 book, penned in French as “Regain” by Jean Giono, gets the hat tip from fellow author and history buff Stephen Clarke. 
“This is the opposite of the twee visions of 'la campagne' presented by relocation programmes on TV,” Clarke tells The Local.
“It's the story of a Provençal village that is dying out. A couple of men still live there, one of them too old to plough the fields, the other young but he's given up the fight. Then a wandering pedlar turns up, with a young woman he treats like dirt. The old ex-farmer decides this might be the village's chance to get back on its feet. But mainly this is a pantheistic story about harnessing the forces of nature to produce life. Elemental stuff.”
Stephen Clarke's own comic take on French rural life features in his novel Merde ActuallyHis latest novel is the more urban Merde in Europe.
And just in case you had not read it…

A Year in Provence 
Let's face it, if you're going to read books about life in the French countryside, then you may as well start one of the most well-known of all. 
This 1989 bestseller by Peter Mayle, who died in January aged 78, – which describes the author's time in the south of France after an advertising career in London – helped push “stranger in a strange land” books back onto bookshelves worldwide (and especially the books about France).
Author Stephen Clarke said this “really well-written book” actually served as the “counter inspiration” for his “Merde” series. 
“That book was about the south of France, it's all sunny, it smells of lavender and olive oil, and all the peasants are quaint idiots. In my experience, in Paris, it was the opposite,” he said.