Bastille Day fireworks in Paris (Photo: Yann Caradec/Flickr)
Vive la France! Around this time of year, two big things happen in France: the French independence day and the beginning of summer vacation. July 14, or Le quatorze juillet, commemorates the French Revolution. On Le quatorze juillet, there will be dancing in the streets and fireworks, for this also marks the beginning of the summer vacation. Parisians sometimes refer to this date as Le grand départ (the big departure), a holiday period that lasts a month and ends with La grande rentrée (the big return).
So, as everybody heads for the coasts, mountains, and vineyards, pack up your books and settle in for a Parisian literary adventure. Below is a list of four French books for you to enjoy this summer, followed by nine more that I simply adore. (Note: I’ve listed the names of translators because they make the book great in English.)
(Photo: MacLehose Press)
Alex, by Pierre Lemaitre
Translated by Frank Wynne
Alex won all of the crime writing prizes last year. In this, the second of the Camille Verhœven Trilogy, the diminutive detective is manipulated into taking on a case of kidnapping. A young woman has been abducted on the streets of Paris and is being held in unspeakable conditions. What begins as a race to find the girl alive takes a darker and more sinister turn as it becomes unclear who is the monster and who is the victim. This book has fiendish twists and incredible suspense. Nothing here is as it seems.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joel Dicker
Translated by Sam Taylor
This story concerns a best-selling author who published his big book at 28 and can’t write another line. He goes to see Harry Quebert, his tough-talking mentor, but life spirals out of control when the body of a teenage girl is found buried on Harry’s property. Joel Dicker’s novel has stormed the bestseller lists everywhere, and it’s both literary metafiction and a good old-fashioned thriller.
(Photo: Vintage Books)
Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky
Translated by Sandra Smith
Suite Française was not discovered until more than 40 years after the death of Irène Némirovsky, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942. These poignant stories portraying life in France under German occupation were written in the white heat of the events themselves. In Némirovsky’s book, a handful of characters come to represent whole populations. The constantly shifting mood reveals moments of joy and hope, flashes of love, light-hearted scenes, and the harrowing end that the author herself could sense yet hoped wouldn’t be.
(Photo: Anchor Books)
By a Slow River, by Philippe Claudel
Translated by Hoyt Rogers
Set in the aftermath of World War I, this is a literary thriller narrated by a former policeman haunted by unsolved cases. It centers on the death of a 10-year-old girl who is found strangled and two captured deserters who have been condemned to death for the crime. The case is “solved,” but the policeman’s doubts linger.
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Now to some of my literary favorites. They are delicious reads and perfect for lazy days:
Zazie in the Metro, by Raymond Queneau
The witty tale of a little girl lost in the Paris subways, also filmed by Louis Malle as Zazie dans le métro.
Bonjour Tristesse, by Francoise Sagan
Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse is a coming-of-age novel that was a global scandal on the Riviera in the 1950s.
(Photo: Europa Editions)
The Marseilles Trilogy, thrillers by Jean-Claude Izzo
The Marseilles Trilogy, featuring ex-cop Fabio Montale, is a classic of European crime fiction. Its publication was the catalyst for the foundation of an entire literary movement, Mediterranean noir.
(Photo: Grove Atlantic)
Quiet Days in Clichy, by Henry Miller
A nostalgic book about bohemian life in Paris.
Chocolat, by Joanne Harris
A tale about French village life and lots of chocolate.
The Last Life, by Claire Messud
A touching tale recounted by a 15-year-old Algerian girl.
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The Oysters of Locmariaquer, by Eleanor Clark
A wonderful nonfiction account of Brittany, its oysters, and its culture.
Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon, by M.F.K. Fisher
Fisher pretty much invented great food writing in America, and this is one of her most evocative.
(Photo: Bantam Classics)
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
If you’re headed north to the area around Rouen, Madame Bovary is the perfect read. I had forgotten that not only is Gustave Flaubert’s novel a literary masterpiece, but as somebody pointed out, it may well be the first real novel about sex and shopping!