It’s no secret that Paris is my favourite city on Earth. I spent a year living and working there on my year abroad and it’s the only other city apart from London that I could ever imagine myself living in for a significant period of time. My obsession with Paris dates back almost a decade when I started to become really interested in the French language and culture. During that time I’ve read a lot of books about France, books set in France, books written in French and more. Check out this post for the complete list of French books I read at Oxford University.
Paris is a city with a rich literary history and it has charmed and inspired many authors over the centuries. I’ve compiled a list of the top books set in Paris to help satisfy your inner Francophile:
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
The Little Paris Bookshop is one of my all time favourite reads ever because it combines two of my favourite things: books and Paris. Jean Perdu owns a floating bookshop in Paris and he has an amazing knack for knowing exactly which book his customer is in need of at that moment. The only person he can’t help is himself and after he opens a long lost letter from an old lover he vows to fix that so off he sails down the Seine…
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
This novel is part set in London, part set in Paris. In the Parisian section, our protagonist works as a dishwasher in an expensive French restaurant and Orwell reveals the dire conditions in which those less fortunate in Paris live in. Even in the overly romanticised city of Paris can you find those living in poverty and this book is an important reminder of that. Sadly Down and Out in Paris and London is largely autobiographical.
Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant
Bel Ami is a book I read in preparation for my French interview at Oxford and I may or may not have been inspired by the Bel Ami film starring Rob Pattinson. Sue me. It’s a classic 19th century French novel involving a naive young boy desperate to join the upper classes and a long line of bored rich ladies willing to jump right into his arms. Learn all about how corrupt 19th century Parisian high society was in Bel Ami – welcome to La Belle Epoque.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
Of course Victor Hugo is also known for writing Les Miserables, which is also well worth a read, but it stands at over 1200 pages in English. Unless if you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, it’s probably best to start with The Hunchback of Notre Dame for a glimpse for a taste of Hugo’s writing. This is set in Medieval Paris and we follow the tragic story of Quasimodo, Esmerelda and Claude. Hugo is the Dickens of France so expect vivid descriptions of Medieval Paris and, of course, the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is frequently cited as the best book set in Paris. It’s the story about two Parisian ladies Renee, a concierge, and Paloma, a genius 12 year old, both of whom conform to image society has said they should conform to whilst being quite someone else when no one is watching. When a Japanese man Ozu arrives in their building, he sees through both their masks and the story unravels. It’s a funny and moving book, much like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See spent over two years on the New York Times Bestseller list and won the Pulitzer Prize so if that’s not reason enough to add this to your TBR pile then I don’t know what is. It’s set in WWII France and our protagonists are a blind Parisian girl and a German boy who strike up an unlikely relationship. There’s also the subplot involving the mystery of the most valuable jewel in the Paris Museum of Natural History, taken by Marie-Laure and her father when they flee Paris.
The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola
InThe Ladies’ Paradise, you’ll be transported to the rapidly developing 19th century Paris. The modern department store is more than just a shopper’s haven. It’s a symbol of the changing society, the rise of the bourgeoisie and changing class relations. It you want to read about the beginnings of the consumerist world we are all too used to today then grab a copy of The Ladies’ Paradise. It’s one of Zola’s best.
P.S. From Paris by Marc Levy
Marcy Levy is the most-read French author today and reading books originally written in another language is important for truly understanding another culture. One of his more recent releases, P.S. From Paris, is the story of two ex-pats, one British, one American, and their complicated love story in the City of Light. Mia is an actress playing a woman in love when in real life she’s trying to escape her husband. Paul is a writer struggling to come back after his first hit. The two are set up on and dating site and then…
Paris Metro by Wendell Steavenson
Paris Metro is one of the most important books on this list. A story of East meets West, this explores Paris in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan terrorist attacks. Kit, a reporter who has spent a lot of time in the Middle East loses herself in the turmoil that follows these attacks and begins to mistrust all that she thought she knew and those around her too. This is the story of family, home and clashing cultures.
Buy Paris Metro: Amazon
A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore
Born on the last day of the WWII, Fay Knox has always known that she grew up in London, England. But then on an orchestra trip to Paris, strange occurrences suggest to her that she actually grew up in Paris. She follows the address label on an old satchel to see where it leads her on her quest to find the truth. Who is her father? What is her mother hiding from her? And why does she have this strange feeling of familiarity in Paris?
The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain
Parisian bookseller Laurent Letellier finds an abandoned handbag on the street. Inside, there’s a red notebook full of the owner’s musing that fills Lauren with the desire to track her down. This is the story of one man’s quest to find a woman in Paris, a city with over 2 million inhabitants. The film rights have already been sold to French cinema operator UGC!
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Anna and the French Kiss is one that I’m about a decade late to. This is the most popular young adult book set in Paris and tells the romantic story that every teenager dreams of. Anna is reluctantly shipped off from the USA to Paris for boarding school. She’s completely bummed out about missing senior year in Atlanta but then Étienne St. Clair walks in and the rest you know.
Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery
In Gourmet Rhapsody, Muriel Barbery invents another story in the hotel of the Elegance of the Hedgehog and we are introduced to Pierre Athens. He’s a food critic and he’s dying. He’s spent years judging the creations of others but in his final moments he’s trying to get back to just one flavour that he can’t forget. What better way to explore Paris, the land of fine wine and cheese, than through a culinary journey?
Time was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer
If you’ve ever looked into the literary scene in Paris, you’ll know of the infamous Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Co. In Time Was Soft There, Jeremy Mercer wanders in one day and buys and book. Soon after, he’s living above the bookshop and working there every day for George Whitman. If you love books about bookshops then add this one to your TBR pile.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Hemingway found much of his inspiration in the city of Paris but few stories focus on the woman by his side. But that’s exactly what The Paris Wife does. This story explores the relationship between the Hemingways after their move to Paris and how they adapt to the Jazz age in Paris. This is the heartbreaking story of what it was like for Hadley Richardson as Hemingway tried to make a name for himself in the intense society of 1920s Paris.
Paris for One by Jojo Moyes
Paris for One is a short book you could easily get through in an hour. It pays testament to the healing power of Paris and why the city of romance is actually the best place to go to mend a broken heart. It’s a classic piece of chick-lit so don’t expect anything more from it!
One Paris Summer by Denise Grover Swank
Sophie Brooks and her brother are shipped off to Europe to spend time with their father, who abandoned them a year previously. What’s worse is that he’s getting married to somebody new and her future step-sister is determined to make her stay miserable! It’s hard to resist the charms of Paris though, especially when she finds her way to the keys of a piano and a gorgeous French boy.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities is also set between London and Paris. In Paris, we are thrown into the turmoil on the street of Paris at the very height of the Reign of Terror and you know what that means – the guillotine! The characters are well fleshed out and Dickens descriptions are as detailed as ever. However, the pacing is slow and if you’re not willing to try and understand the symbolism at work here then this work will be wasted on you.
One Evening in Paris by Nicolas Barreau
Nicolas Barreau has written a number of books set in different kitsch Parisian environments but One Evening in Paris is my favourite. It’s set at Cinéma Paradis, a cinema that refuses to show blockbusters or serve coca cola. Classic French stubbornness. There’s a woman who turns up in a red coat every Wednesday that cinema owner Alain begins to fall for but then he gets big news. His cinema is going to be used for the filming of a major upcoming movie. Then the mystery woman disappears. Are the two related? Alain is determined to find out…
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Told in both past and present, Tatiana takes us on a journey back to Paris in 1942 and the horrors of the French occupation. A journalist is tasked with researching the events of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup and she uncovers the story of Sarah, a ten year old girl who was brutally arrested with the rest of her family. Here’s the thing.. she locked her younger brother in the cupboard to keep him safe before they were carted around. As she digs into Sarah’s story she begins to question her own place and her life in France today.
Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano
Patrick Modiano is a nobel prize winner so you could say he knows a thing or two about writing. His work Paris Nocturne is a dark and mysterious story which begins with an accident on the streets of Paris. The intrigue that follows involves envelopes stuffed with bank notes, a disappearing driver, a trip to the hospital, an encounter with the police and more..
Paris Still Life by Rosalind Brackenbury
Gaby Greenwood flees to Paris after the death of her father, leaving her life and her husband behind. In Paris, she receives a letter from her father’s lover for over thirty years, a woman she didn’t even know existed. This woman has her father’s last gift to give to Gaby as well as host of secrets to tell. Gaby begins to question everything and is forced to choose between the life she left behind and the new one she has run to.
Paris Adrift by E J Swift
Paris Adrift is the only book on this list that leaves the realm of what is possible in today’s world. Said to be a mix between Time Machine and Midnight in Paris, Paris Adrift takes the reader on a journey through time in Paris. Hallie moves from England to Paris to bartend at the infamous Moulin Rouge, but what she finds there is more than she could have ever expected from this city of wonders.
Foreign Tongue by Vanina Marsot
Anna moves from LA to Paris with a broken heart and a set of keys to her aunt’s empty apartment. She begins work translating an erotic novel by an anonymous author and the book’s mysteries bring her into the world of Paris’ literary elite. All the while, she contemplates her dual identity as both French and US citizen.
The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs
The Joyce Girl focuses on the daughter of writer James Joyce and her relationship with another prolific writer – Samuel Beckett. She’s trying to make a name for herself as a dancer in Paris but she has her father’s demands to contend with. She struggles with the pursuit of her own ambitions in the face of her parents’ expectations and her belief that she is destined to marry Beckett. Fans of Joyce and/or Beckett will love this little story into the personal lives of these two writers.
The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harrs
The Lollipop Shoes is the second in Harris’ Chocolat series and it takes us to Paris. Yanne Charbonneau opens up a chocolaterie in Montmartre and wants nothing more but to still the wind and keep her daughters safe. Then Zozie de l’Alba enters their lives and so begins a tale of treachery, seduction and deviancy.
Murder on the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner
Whilst readers have argued about whether this book is a hit or a miss, there’s one thing they all agree on – the depiction of Paris during the World’s Fair at the close of the 19th century is amazing. As the title suggest, this is a mystery novel beginning with a murder on the Eiffel Tower. As you piece together all the clues, you’ll walk along the streets of Paris in La Belle Epoque.
Paris by the Book by Liam Callanan
If you want to read a book set in Paris about a book set in Paris then Paris by the Book is for you. Gosh that was a confusing wasn’t it? In this novel, an eccentric novelist goes missing and all that he’s left his family is two plane tickets to Paris. They all head off to the capital of France and find an unfinished manuscript waiting for them but still no sign of its author. The family settle in Paris and explore its literary history whilst trying to unravel their own family mystery.
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The Little Paris Bookshop Book Review