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Armchair Traveler: Great Books Set in France in Honor of Bastille Day

Armchair Traveler: Great Books Set in France in Honor of Bastille Day

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.)

Alex book cover

(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.

Related: 8 Great Summer Reads for the Escapist in All of Us

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair book cover

(Photo: Penguin)

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.

Suite Francaisee book cover

(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.  

By A Slow River book cover

(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.

Related: 5 Must-Read Books That Define Brazil

Now to some of my literary favorites. They are delicious reads and perfect for lazy days: 

Zazie Dans Le Metro book cover

(Photo: Penguin)

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 book cover

(Photo: HarperCollins)

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. 

Marseilles trilogy book covers

(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.

Quiet Days in Clichy book cover

(Photo: Grove Atlantic)

Quiet Days in Clichy, by Henry Miller

A nostalgic book about bohemian life in Paris. 

Chocolat book cover

(Photo: Penguin)

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris

A tale about French village life and lots of chocolate.

The Last Life book cover

(Photo: Mariner)

The Last Life, by Claire Messud

A touching tale recounted by a 15-year-old Algerian girl.

Related: Cheat Sheet: Paris 

The Oysters of Locmariaquer book cover

(Photo: HarperCollins)

The Oysters of Locmariaquer, by Eleanor Clark

A wonderful nonfiction account of Brittany, its oysters, and its culture.

Long Ago in France: Dijon book cover

(Photo: Touchstone)

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.

Madame Bovary book cover

(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!

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