5 Books Set In Paris (Part 1)


Before I had the opportunity to visit Paris with my wonderful mom and brother last year, I had a theory. I told myself that, if I found and read enough books set in Paris, I could pretend I had been there before.

With each book that I read set in Paris, I believed that the street names and locations would become more familiar; I could create a sort of map in my head of the City of Light.

Can Books Replace Reality?

The map was not accurate, though, for many reasons. Here are a few:

  • You can only experience a city in a novel to a certain point. Different authors reflect different versions of themselves in their stories. Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens are not going to paint the same version of Paris.
  • The books that I read were set in different time periods. We have WWII-era Paris with airplanes and bombs; then we have Emile Zola’s novels, where marketplaces were described in minute, fascinating detail. This is not a bad thing: It means the city has many faces, and through books, we can see them all.
  • The struggles of the characters change the flavor of Paris. Is the character happy living there, or are they trying to escape? Are they grieving a death or celebrating a marriage? This is the joy of literature.

While I did not create an accurate present-day map of Paris, I still benefited from my collection of books set in France. I felt connected enough with the city to satisfy my inner traveler until the day I made it there. Then I was blessed to see Paris with my own eyes; thanks Mom!

I know there are more books set in Paris and I am still woefully underread as far as the lists go. I have not yet read bestsellers such as The Nightingale or The Lost Girls of Paris; I do plan to read them eventually.

Here are five books I did read and enjoy.

1- Paris by Edward Rutherfurd

Edward Rutherfurd writes novels in which the main characters are cities, rather than people. I have only read one to this day, Paris, a sprawling 800-page glimpse into Paris that covers different time periods. My favorite scenes were those written during the construction of the Eiffel Tower. I enjoyed seeing the city as she grew into what she is now.

2- The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

This was a beautiful and heartbreaking fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s wife, Hadley. It features legends such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Imagine becoming such a famous author that you’re a character in someone else’s book. I hope if that happens to me one day, I’ll be an interesting one!

3- Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

For fans of YA fiction, Anna and the French Kiss simply has to be on this list. I like that it showed Paris from a student’s point of view; Anna is going through different life changes. At the time when I read it, her angst was more relatable. The story is simply lovely.

4- The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

If you need a reason to give this delightful novel a try, here’s an excerpt from the blurb on the back:

Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.

5- Moonlight Over Paris by Jennifer Robson

Okay, here I’m cheating. I read Moonlight Over Paris after my visit to that delightful city, but it was still an enchanting read. It’s apparently part of a series, so I will keep an eye out for the others in that series: I found this third installment in a secondhand bookshop.

Books & Travel

While reading didn’t really take me to Paris as it is now, I can’t deny that reading takes you on an adventure. I met Hadley Hemingway and explored the marketplace of La Halle in The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola (who wrote more books set in those remote parts of the city; he loved it dearly.)

Do you have any suggestions for books set in France? Perhaps you have a favorite that isn’t listed here? I would love to know. Leave a comment and I’ll check it out!

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola


The Belly of Paris is a unique, fast-paced novel about justice, revolution, and hunger. It is the third book in a 20-part series titled Les Rougon-Macqyart. The series examines two branches of a family: the respectable (legitimate) side, and the disreputable (illegitimate.)

The third installment follows Florent Quenu, a French convict who escaped exile in French Guiana after six years of imprisonment due to a false accusation. The novel opens with a scene after his return to Paris; in the scene, his unconscious body is found on a road by a merchant on her way to a marketplace called Les Halles.

61bziDAYLCL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_At once we feel pity for this man who is broken and lost in the world. He spends a great deal of time reminiscing on his horrific escape and the journey back home. Only when he acquires a job and independence does he find his personality, and in it we see how anger has blackened his heart. He wants to revolt against the government.

Quoting a paragraph from the novel, Florent is convinced that “it was his calling to avenge his thinness against this city that had grown fat while those who defended justice starved in exile, he was a self-appointed avenger, and he dreamed of rising up, right in Les Halles, and crushing this regime of drunks and gluttons.”

To understand Florent’s political motives, it is necessary to know about the author. Emile Zola was a major figure in the political liberalization of France. His views led him to become a controversial man, especially after the publication of his political article, J’acusse. The article called for exoneration of the falsely accused army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Following the backlash, Zola was persecuted for libel; he was forced to escape to England to avoid imprisonment.

The oddest thing about The Belly of Paris is its description. Zola can make the gloomiest scenes comical with his descriptions of food. Vegetables, cheese, beef–all are used to set the mood for good times and bad. What a character eats is a major element in describing their personalities–class and wealth are shown by whether they eat fresh sausage and cheese for dinner, or are forced to beg for leftovers.

The beautiful fruits were on display, delicately arranged with the roundness of their cheeks, half-hidden in the baskets like faces of beautiful children, partly concealed by leaves. The peaches were especially beautiful, peaches from Montreuil with clear, soft skin like northern girls’ and yellow sunburned peaches from the Midi, tanned like Proven├žal women. The apricots lying in moss had the amber glow of sunset shining on dark-haired girls.

Zola wanted to write a novel where the city of Paris herself was a character; in this book, he did a fantastic job. With poignant characters and backstories, he plays with readers’ emotions, blurring the line between right and wrong. One day I hope to read all twenty books and see the character of Paris as seen by one of the boldest authors of his time.

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust


kruse_swanns_wayOccasionally we find books so beautifully written that it seems the style, not the plot, keeps us turning pages.

Though translated from its original French, Swann’s Way did not lose its beauty in the process: every sentence reads like a verse from an old, nostalgic poem. As an example:

Meanwhile the scenery of his dream-stage scattered in dust, he opened his eyes, heard for the last time the boom of a wave in the sea, grown very distant. He touched his cheek. It was dry. And yet he could feel the sting of the cold spray, and the taste of salt on his lips.

That’s not to say the plot was dull–I only mean that I was entranced by the scenes, described in such a way that they drifted before me like dreams. Of the plot, I can say it’s unique in its depth, two points of view cleverly blended.

The two points of view seem as though they shouldn’t have anything in common. In Swann’s Way, the first scenes focus on young Marcel, loosely based on the author himself. This fact adds another layer of mystery. We want to get to know the author, and we wonder what traits he shared with his characters.

Marcel, the character, opens the novel with flashbacks to powerful moments in his childhood. It’s a sad, anxiety-ridden childhood; his fears plague him to a point where he cannot sleep if his mother doesn’t go upstairs to give him a kiss good-night. These kisses become ritual, seldom broken except for when the wealthy Charles Swann comes to visit.

Swann is the second main character. He is a wealthy stockbroker, friends with many important figures in Parisian society, and also controversial because of his marriage to a woman named Odette. Their courtship is a mark on his name forever, a favorite topic of Marcel’s grandparents to discuss when he is not around. His passages in the novel follow that tumultuous time.

We see his admiration for Odette become an obsession, then morph into anguish when she doesn’t reciprocate his love. When Odette distances herself from Swann, he begins to hate her as much as he wants her. Though he once thought her beautiful, he now loathes even her appearance. He fantasizes of a life without her, yet sends friends to stalk her and report her daily activities.

This jealousy is a trap for him as well as for Odette. This is where the story ripples like a reflection on water: as a reader, I didn’t like Charles Swann, but couldn’t bring myself to hate him. I knew he would never be happy, and I read many scenes with a grimace.

Swann and Odette eventually marry and have a daughter named Gilberte. Young Marcel falls for Gilberte in a manner similar to Swann’s obsession with Odette; it is here that their two stories become linked in an intriguing parallel.

Proust wrote this book in a way that he managed to manipulate time, much in the way painters mix color blends that tell stories; if we allow ourselves to soak in the sentences, we feel each emotion until the end.

This book may not be for everyone, because it is a rather heavy read, and a long one. It requires great patience–I found that speed-reading would not do, and forced myself to slow down so I could taste each word. If we miss one phrase, the enchantment does not grip us.

It is ideal for readers who like heavier stories, and those who soak in poetic writing. Swann’s Way will leave marks with the characters’ strong conflicts; there are certain scenes in which my heart will lurk forever.

I know I will read this book again one day.

If you would like to read Swann’s Way, it’s available for download here at Gutenberg! Have you already read the book? What are your thoughts on it?

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