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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
 
Chocolat
 
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. 

 

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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