As it was World Book Day last week, it seems timely to write a post on French literature, so I’ve put together a guide here to French books that you must read.
All of the books mentioned here can be found on US and UK Amazon (and of course French Amazon) and in good bookshops.
All of the books below are available in English and French, apart from Chanson Douce, Dans le Jardin de L’Ogre, En attendant Bojangles and Les oublies du dimanche which, at the time of writing, have not yet been translated into English.
What are your favourite French books? And have you read any in the list below?
1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
I first read this at university, and fell in love with it.
The novel’s main character Emma Bovary is married to a village doctor, Charles Bovary, hence the ‘Madame Bovary’ of the title. A farmer’s daughter, Emma accepts Charles’s marriage proposal after he visits her family’s farm to treat her father when he breaks his leg.
After an unhappy wedding day where Emma’s wedding dress picks up thorns as she makes her way with her husband from the church ceremony to the wedding celebration, she begins her married life with Charles.
Before her marriage, Emma thought that she was in love with Charles. Following her wedding day, she then wonders if she is mistaken, and asks herself if she really loves her husband.
Emma casts her mind back to the novels that she read as a young girl, and remembers reading about ‘exhilaration’, ‘passion’ and ‘happiness’. She wonders if these words, ‘which sounded so beautiful in the books that she’d read’, apply to her marriage to Charles, and tries to understand what people really mean when they use them in real life.
The dissatisfaction that Emma feels in her marriage then creeps insidiously into all corners of her life after she is invited with Charles to a ball held by a viscount.
At the lavish dinner given before the ball, the tables are laden with exotic and luxurious foods from lobster and quail to pomegranates and pineapples, which Emma has never seen before.
The guests are then served iced champagne that makes Emma ‘shiver from head to toe’. She is asked to dance at the ball after dinner, and waltzes so fast with her partner that she feels the room spin around her.
As the ball comes to an end and the next day begins to dawn, Emma wraps her shawl around her shoulders and sits quietly by a window. As she looks out over the castle grounds, she fights to stay awake, trying to ‘prolong the illusion of this luxurious life that she will soon have to leave behind’.
When Emma returns home with Charles after the ball, she wills herself to remember every detail of the evening. She becomes obsessed with committing it all to memory as time passes and she receives no further ball invitations in the post.
To escape the tedium of her life with Charles, Emma buys a map of Paris, spending hours tracing the inked streets with her fingers. She wants either to return the convent where she studied as a young girl or to travel the world and even, as Flaubert writes at one point, wanting at the same time ‘to die and to live in Paris’.
The frustration that Emma feels at spending her life with a man that she does not love is made clear in the skilful way that Flaubert tells the story. Emma may come across in the novel at times as spoiled, selfish or petulant, but there are also moments where her confusion and dissatisfaction with her life are brought to the fore.
Flaubert’s narrative style is carefully neutral throughout the novel, which leaves his reader free to form an independent opinion of the characters and the situation in the novel.
And so it is left up to us to decide: is Emma childish and self-indulgent, or is she deeply unhappy because she is unfulfilled and trapped in a monotonous life as a housewife, married to a man that she does not love?
If you enjoyed this, why not try:
L’Éducation Sentimentale, also by Flaubert, or Thérèse Desqueyroux, by François Mauriac.
2. Au revoir là-haut by Pierre Lemaitre
During my year abroad at university, which you can read about here, I worked as an English language assistant at a secondary school near Nantes, in northwestern France.
I was chatting to one of the English teachers one day, when she mentioned that she was in the middle of reading Au revoir là-haut, which had just won the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes.
I remembered the conversation that I’d had with her when I was thinking about new French books to read after I left university, and ordered Au revoir là-haut.
I thought the book was absolutely brilliant. It’s really well written, with incredibly vivid descriptions and very realistic and relatable characters too. Best of all, it’s also available in English – have a look here for more information about the translation.
And why not have a look at my review of the book here?
If you’re looking for similar books, how about reading:
Les Âmes Grises by Philippe Claudel, also set during the First World War, or Sébastien Japrisot’s novel Un long dimanche de fiançailles, which was made into a film starring Audrey Tautou.
Sébastien Japrisot’s novel tells the story of a young couple, Mathilde and Manech, during the First World War. After Manech is condemned to death for deliberately injuring himself in order to be withdrawn from battle, Mathilde decides to find out what has happened to him.
3. Chanson Douce by Leïla Slimani
I first heard about this in 2016, just after it won the Prix Goncourt.
When I visited Paris in January this year, I checked in a couple of bookshops to see if I could find it, but it was so popular that it was sold out in all of the places that I’d looked in 😦 Just before giving up all hope, I popped into FNAC on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and managed to buy a copy there.
Have a look at my review of Chanson Douce here.
If you’re looking for similar novels, why not read:
Dans le Jardin de L’Ogre, also by Leïla Slimani, or Trois jours et une vie, by Pierre Lemaitre.
4. Dans le Jardin de L’Ogre by Leïla Slimani
I came across this novel by Leïla Slimani when I was reading about her most recent book, Chanson Douce.
Like Chanson Douce, it’s extremely well-written. Have a read of my review here.
5. En attendant Bojangles by Olivier Bourdeaut
Bourdeaut’s novel was a huge success in France when it came out in January 2016. Read my review here.
If you enjoyed this, what about reading:
Valérie Perrin’s novel Les oubliés du dimanche, which is about Justine, a young woman who’s lived with her grandparents and cousin after losing her parents in a car accident when she was little.
Justine now works as an auxiliary nurse in a nursing home, where she listens to the home’s residents as they tell her about her lives. She becomes particularly close to one of the residents in particular, Hélène.
As Hélène talks about her life and her memories, Justine has the idea of writing them down in a notebook, which eventually helps her to come to terms with what has happened to her in her own life.
6. Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola
This was on my reading list during my first year at university, and was the first book that I read by Zola.
The title character lives with her aunt, the formidable Madame Raquin, and her male cousin Camille after she is made an orphan as a young girl. Whilst her hypochondriac cousin is constantly fussed over by his mother, the solitary Thérèse is mostly left to her own devices.
Unknown to Thérèse, her aunt has plans for her to marry Camille. Sure enough, the couple get engaged and married when Thérèse turns twenty-one, and then move to Paris with Madame Raquin in tow to help Camille to find work.
Soon after the family have settled in Paris, Camille finds a job with the Orléans railway company. By chance, he also meets up again with Laurent, one of his childhood friends. The opportunistic Laurent is quickly introduced to the Raquin family, and takes advantage of their hospitality by visiting them regularly for meals and by seducing the unhappily married Thérèse.
Laurent’s relationship with Thérèse soon develops into a passionate affair and, when the two lovers become steadily more frustrated at not being able to spend time together, Thérèse has an idea. She’s trapped in an unhappy marriage with a man that she doesn’t love, and she wants to be with her lover – so, as she suggests to Laurent, why don’t they just get rid of her husband?
They decide to drown Camille whilst on a boating trip, but in the struggle that takes place before Thérèse’s husband drowns, he bites Laurent on the neck.
Both Thérèse and Laurent are praised after the incident, as they are seen as heroes who tried their best to save Camille from his accidental death. They are initially not suspected of any involvement in Camille’s death, and are soon able to fulfil their wishes of living together when they get married.
The start of their married life, that they have dreamed about for so long, is soon overshadowed by tension and guilt at their role in Camille’s death. Laurent is more and more troubled by the bite on his neck, which becomes infected over time, and serves as a horrible reminder of the drowning of his wife’s first husband.
Thérèse and Laurent’s delight at finally being able to live together is eclipsed by their fear that they will be their role in Camille’s death will be discovered – will their secret be found out?
For similar books, why not try:
Germinal and Pot-Bouille, or La Bête Humaine, all by Zola?
How about you?
Let me know about your favourite French books below!