“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” ~ Saint Augustine
Paris is always in vogue.
Every year, tourism in Paris reaches record levels with no end in sight, despite the rain, gloom, and snooty natives. We Americans, hopelessly infatuated with Paris, are the most frequent visitors. Like moths to the flame, we are drawn to the City of Love — to its culture, tumultuous history, grand old buildings, and fine wine. The je ne said quoi of Paris is a national obsession.
Tourism is not the only result of our obsession. People fantasize and read about Paris to enjoy the city vicariously. I’m a definitely a fantasizer, a lifelong bookworm, and ardent Francophile. I’ve done my fair share of “Paris reading” over the years.
I won’t be in Paris this year, and that thought fills me with nostalgia and perhaps a touch of pique.
In lieu of a visit, I thought I’d compile and share my favorite Paris books. They’re either set in Paris, describe Paris’ wondrous history and culture, or just make you want to pack your bags and hop on as plane for your next geographical cure. As Audrey Hepburn says in Sabrina, “Paris is always a good idea.”
1. The Seven Ages of Paris, Alistar Horne
Horne once famously queried, “has any sensible person ever doubted that Paris is fundamentally a woman?” I love that line.
A renowned historian, Horne tells the tumultuous history of Paris, from its Roman origins to WWI. His book manages to be comprehensive and informative, but still eminently fun to read and often witty. The “seven ages” are helpfully subdivided into digestable sub-categories, accompanied by headings to keep the reader on track. It is a lively primer and perfect for a Francophile looking for a deeper understanding of Paris.
2. A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light, David Downie
This book is a unique combination of memoir, history, and travelogue. In humorous detail, it relates Downie’s quest to find out exactly why Paris is the world’s most romantic city. The book focuses on the 19th century Romantic Period, and may put you in the mood to seek out Paris’ Musée de la Vie Romantique. It’s a quaint museum with a truly swoonful name.
Downie weaves together his life with those of the great romantic figures of Paris — George Sand, Charles Baudelaire, Eugene Delacroix, and Honore de Balzac. Downie’s almost encyclopedic knowledge of Paris also provides a virtual walking tour through its parks, artists studios, cafes, and streets. The book’s almost like time travel, it’s so compelling.
3. Paris, Edmund Rutherford
Rutherford is the grand master of sprawling, multi-generational historical fiction. In this massive 800+ page tomb, he turns his formidable literary powers on Paris. The story opens in the golden era of Belle Epoque France.
Rutherford follows the ups and downs of three families from medieval times through the 1960s. He explores sociopolitical themes: the building of Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, the waning days of the Knights Templar, the Reign of Terror, the machinations of Richelieu, and the heyday of the Impressionists. This novel really brings the City of Light to life.
4. Picasso, Creator and Destroyer, Ariana Huffington
I’ve always been obsessed with Picasso. He was a chronic womanizer. But he was also a genius who produced consistently great art over many decades. Huffington’s book is a juicy, riveting tale, though not a particularly flattering portrait of the man. She concedes Picasso’s towering artistry, but decries the way he egotistically trampled on people, particularly his wives and mistresses, throughout his life.
As the book title conveys, Picasso was a creator and a destroyer. I enjoyed this book more the Norman Mailer’s Picasso biography, which mostly focuses on Picasso’s formative years. If you’re in Paris, the Picasso Museum in the beautiful Hotel de Sale in the Marais is a must visit sight. (It’s usually packed, so get a timed entry ticket.)
5. The Private Lives of the Impressionists, Sue Roe
If you love Impressionism, this is the book for you. It explores the colorful lives of Impressionist artists during Fin de siècle Paris. It is a magnificent group portrait.
You learn about the lives and struggles of Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Renoir, and Degas. Ridiculed for their paintings initially, they struggled to survive in then bohemian Montmartre. Many of these artists had studios in the dilapidated Bateau Lavoir and were part of the gritty underbelly of the cabaret world.
The novel is a scholarly work, but still compulsively readable. After reading it, you’ll want to head to the d’Orsay, the Musee Marmottan Monet, and the Orangerie to see Impressionist works in person.
Roe has also written In Montmartre, Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernism, which is a sort of companion piece. Like Private Lives, it is wonderfully written and crammed with historical facts and anecdotes.
6. A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel
I loved this Dickens-like book. Mantel has a gift for historical fiction. The book is full on French Revolution — that swirl of events, passions, and tragedies that began with optimism and ended with the undiluted pain of the Reign of Terror. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s vast, ambitious, and complex.
It tells a compelling story through three of the revolution’s most pivotal characters: Georges Danton, the orator; Maximilien Robespierre, the cold rationalist who imposed the Reign of Terror; and Camille Desmoulins, a fellow conspirator and pamphleteer. In Mantel’s novel, there are no clear heroes or villains, merely plausible humans flailing around in unintended traps of their own making.
7. Paris Red, Maureen Gibbon
Paris Red is a fictional account of the unconventional love affair between Edouard Manet and Victorine Meuret. Manet was one of the first painters of modern life. He had an upper-class upbringing, but led a bohemian life and scandalized the French Salon with his disregard for academic conventions.
Meuret is the woman from Manet’s famous 1863 painting Olympia. The book explores how Meuret influenced Manet, but also how she was influenced and changed by Manet and French society. It’s interesting to experience Manet’s painting though the viewpoint of the model.
8. Shocking Paris, Soutine, Chagall, and the Outsiders of Montparnasse, Stanley Meisler
For a couple of decades before World War II, a group of immigrant painters and sculptors, including Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, and Jules Pascin dominated the new art scene of Montparnasse in Paris. Art critics gave them the name “the School of Paris” to set them apart from French born artists.
This book presents a richly informed, absorbing, and stimulating account of the life and work of some of the best known expatriate artists. Soutine, the ringleader, was intense and demonic, the epitome of a tortured artist. Shocking Paris will shock you. And it essentially expands on the topics featured in Private Lives.
9. The Flaneur, Edmund White
A flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the streets. White’s book is basically a personal guided tour of Paris, focusing on the idiosyncrasies, particular flavor, befuddling history, and ultimately addicting charm of Paris. There’s an amazing amount of Parisian history stuffed into this little book. Ah, it makes me want to stroll in the backstreets of Paris.
10. The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, Elaine Sciolino
In this lovely little book, Sciolino, the former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, invites us on a tour of her favorite Parisian street, the Rue des Martyrs. It’s a half mile of magic in the trendy South Pigalle, or SoPi, neighborhood in the 9th arrondissement of Paris
It’s a serious street with some serious history. In the 3rd century, Saint Denis walked up the street to Montmartre with his severed head in hand. Now it has over 200 shops, cafes, restaurants, and museums. If you are familiar with the neighborhood, you’ll love this book. If you’re not, you’ll be inspired to visit SoPi to see what all the fuss is about.
11. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
This book has been called “the publishing phenomenon of the decade.” It is a daring, highly original, and exquisitely written book. The lead character, Renée Michel, is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: knowledgeable and passionate about culture and the arts.
Renée lives with only her cat for company. The book takes you into the inner minds of the characters with some philosophical rumination along the way. The characters tutor the reader, with extreme literary finesse, about the fakery and “official discourse” of the powerful and wealthy.
12. My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories, David Lebovitz
This is a tasty little book by author and food blogger David Lebovitz. It’s part memoir, part cookbook. His anecdotal stories about living and cooking in Paris are charming.
There are tales of eating in bistros, shopping in market stalls, buying only local produce, learning to cook authentic Parisian specialties, learning the language, and making friends. The recipes are to die for and the pictures of delicious looking food will stoke your hunger.
13. Paris Letters, Janice MacLeod
This is a romance novel set in Paris. It’s a charming chick lit memoir about the author’s transition from a stress-filled corporate job to a world of travel and freedom. Janice, an American, saves up money, flees a boring job, and moves to Paris. She meets a hunky butcher, Christophe, and they begin a romance.
Macleod writes about everything from art, architecture, history, food, wine, and flowers. The Paris Letters of the book’s title are a painted letter series that Janice sends out to subscribers from Paris via snail mail. She eventually opens a shop on Etsy and is able to stay in Paris, living her dream.
14. Simone de Beauvoir, Deirdre Bair
This impressively researched biography chronicles the life of the French writer. It examines her roles as author, philosopher, feminist, and companion to Jean Paul Sartre. de Beauvoir was affectionate, generous and witty, but also quirky, opinionated, witheringly honest, and generally humorless.
She drank and cried to excess. Although never bound by the traditional constraints of marriage or family, she guarded Sartre jealously and they were lifelong friends and sometimes lovers. You will not come away with warm feelings about Sartre.
15. Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, Graham Robb
This book tells the story of the geography and history of Paris through a series of 20 vignettes.Robb introduces each personality as a mystery for readers to unravel, while simultaneously evoking the sights and sounds of Paris.
There are stories about Napoleon losing his virginity, about the Nazi occupation, about a criminal who becomes a policeman, about Madame Zola forgiving her husband’s infidelity, and an engineer who “saves” Paris. It’s almost like having a tour guide for Paris.
16. Rodin’s Lover, Heather Webb
This is a tragic love story about two great sculptors, Camille Claudel and August Rodin. Claudel was a talented aspiring sculptor in Belle Epoque Paris who became Rodin’s assistant, muse, and lover. They had a torrid, passionate, and volatile affair. But Rodin ultimately refused to leave his lifelong companion for Claudel.
Being linked with Rodin was both a curse and blessing. Though Claudel’s works were shown at the Salon, her success was overshadowed by Rodin and her work often derided as derivative. After their break, Claudel spiraled down emotionally, gradually descending into madness. It’s a riveting tale and gives you insight into the Paris art world of the time.
You’ll definitely want to head to the Rodin Museum after reading this page turner, where there is a room dedicated to the work of Claudel. And it’s a short drive to the fairly newly opened Camille Claudel Museum in nearby Nogent-sur-Seine.
17. Marie Antoinette, Antonia Fraser
While Hillary Mantel is a heavyweight, Antonia Fraser writes compulsively readable historical fiction. This book is a sympathetic account of the queen, Marie Antoinette. It follows her journey from a young girl sent to marry King Louis XVI to her defense before she was guillotined.
You can immerse yourself in French Revolution lore with this book. If you’re going to Paris, Paris Walks has guided French Revolution themed walking tours on both the left and right bank. You can also visit the UNESCO-listed Conciergerie where Antoinette was imprisoned and led to the guillotine.
18. A Far Better Rest, Susanne Alleyn
If you haven’t had enough of the French revolution (and who has?), pick up this erudite book. It brings the French Revolution to life through a re-telling of Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities. The stage is set in Paris, where narrator Sydney Carton is studying with radical revolutionaries Maximilien Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins.
It is a sordid, tragic tale, with the French Revolution slowly and inexorably devouring itself. If you read this, you should visit the Conciergerie — the place where the excesses of the French Revolution took place.
19. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
Hugo’s famous Gothic potboiler is as much a sociological event as it is a novel. As he intended, the book inspired the public and helped transform Notre Dame from a crumbling wreck subject to demolition into a beautifully restored landmark.
Known as the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” in English, the novel contains long and detailed descriptions of the cathedral. It also tells the complicated tale of the characters Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Claude Frollo. If you’re a Hugophile and are in Paris, a trip to the Victor Hugo Museum on the lovely Place des Vosges is in order.
20. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
This Pulitzer Prize winning book is not strictly set just in Paris. It moves between the walled city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and Paris. The prose and storytelling are beautiful. This is the kind of novel that will intrigue and surprise you in equal measure. I loved it and couldn’t put it down.
Doerr’s novel is a touching account of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. It is also a meditation on human nature and what it means to “do what is expected” versus “doing what is right.” You will feel like you are living history, not just reading about it.