Books Set in Paris

The holidays are coming up and we are planning a trip to Paris – albeit much shorter than we had hoped for! With three days less than we had originally planned, this has meant giving up on visits to the Louvre or Versailles, but it does mean that it leaves us something to do on our next trip to this wonderful city.

SacreCoeur1In preparation, of course, I’ve been reading (or remembering) some of my favourite books set in Paris.

Daniel Pennac: La Feé Carabine (The Fairy Gunmother)

Set in the lively immigrant and working-class community of Belleville, this is one of the funniest and most macabre installments in Pennac’s saga of the Malausséne family, place of refuge for numerous children, drug-addled grandpas and epileptic dog.

Paul Berna: Le Cheval Sans Tête (The Headless Horse)

A children’s classic, set in a deprived post-war Parisian banlieue bordered by railway lines, this features a gang of street children whose pride and joy is their headless wooden horse on wheels, which they use to careen down the cobbled alleyways. Then some real-life criminals get involved, but nothing daunts the kids, especially not one of my favourite female protagonists ever, tough Marion, the ‘girl with the dogs’.

FranSacreCoeur2çoise Sagan: Aimez-Vous Brahms? (Do You Like Brahms?)

The title comes from the question a young man asks an older but still attractive woman, and it marks the start of a real Parisian love story. Bittersweet, with lots of meetings and discussions in cafés and galleries, concert-halls and rain-soaked streets.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast

The quintessential guide for Americans in Paris. Hemingway captures the exuberance and sheer love of life, as well as the rivalries and cattiness of that period, 1920s Paris. For the other side of the story, read Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’, for Hemingway’s first wife’s account of the same events.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française

Not strictly speaking set in Paris, it nevertheless follows the fortunes of those who have had to flee from Paris following the Nazi occupation. Written with surprising maturity and reflection, this novel is particularly poignant when we bear in mind that it was written in the midst of the terrifying events which led to Némirovsky’s arrest, deportation and death in concentration camp in 1942.

MontmartreViewFred Vargas: Pars vite, reviens tard  (Have Mercy on Us All)

Many of Vargas’ crime novels are set in Paris, but this is the most memorable of them all, featuring the uncoventional Commissaire Adamsberg, but also incongruent phenomena such as a town-crier in modern-day Parisian squares, sinister cryptic messages and a possible revival of the bubonic plague.

Victor Hugo: Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame)

A much more tragic and ambiguous story of unrequited love and the plight of outsiders than the Disney version will have you believe, this is above all a love story for the cathedral itself, which Hugo thought the French were in danger of destroying to make way for the modernisation of Paris, and a panoramic view of the entire history of Paris.

TuileriesGeorge Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Based partly on his own experiences of working as a dishwasher in Parisian restaurants, the first half of the book recounts a gradual descent into poverty and hopelessness in the Paris of the late 1920s. This is the darker side of the gilded ‘expats in Paris in the coin of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and still remarkably accurate for low-paid workers today: ‘If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.’

Cara Black: Murder in the Marais

For a lighter, more enjoyable read, this is the first (and still one of my favourites) in the long-running Aimée Leduc crime series set in different quarters of Paris. Always based on a real-life event, the books show a profound love for the streets, food, sights and people of Paris, plus they feature a resilient, resourceful and very chic young heroine with a penchant for getting into trouble. What more could you want?

ParisMetroSimone de Beauvoir: Memoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)

The first part of de Beauvoir’s autobiography, it is of course primarily concerned with her intellectual and emotional awakening as a child and teenager, but it also gives an intriguing picture of Parisian society at the beginning of the 20th century: its snobbery and limitations, the consequences of a lack of dowry for girls, the impact of Catholicism on French education. The friendship with the beautiful, irrepressible Zaza (and her tragic end) haunted me for years.

There are so many more I could have added to this list. It seems that Paris is one of those cities which endlessly inspires writers. What other books set in Paris have you loved?


27 thoughts on “Books Set in Paris”

      1. Oh yes but you have such fun trying to get and find the new ones. Have you read The Dress Thief by Natalie Meg Evans? One about the copyists who would ‘steal’ the designs of the big fashion houses to sell elsewhere. war time drama too – very very good! Look forward to more!

  1. Marina Sofia – What excellent choices of books set in Paris! Such interesting and different perspectives too. I think that’s a great idea to get you ready for your holiday.

    1. I managed to sneak in quite a few crime novels, but I wanted this to be broader. I really enjoy reading books set in an area I’m about to visit though…

  2. Great post and such an interesting selection, many of which are new to me. Have you read Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas? It’s a sort of fictionalised account of the two years this author spent in Paris trying to emulate Hemingway by living the life of an aspiring writer (so there’s a nod to A Movable Feast). It’s very funny in an ironic way and full of self-deprecating charm.

    1. I’ve heard of it – I think Stu also reviewed it – and I really want to read it. In Romania we used to have a ‘crush’ on Paris – it was the city every Romanian emigré aspired to live in and make a cultural impression upon (hence Eugene Ionesco, Tristan Tzara, Emil Cioran all settled there). I personally don’t think I could live there, but it’s perfect for visiting!

  3. What a brilliant idea for a post and so many great examples here but the book I instantly think of set in Paris is Ludwig Bemelmans Madeline ‘In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…’

  4. Can I add Didier Daeninckx’s crime novel “Meurtres pour mémoire” (“Murder in Memoriam”)? Some action takes place in Toulouse, admittedly, but the central focus is Paris during the 1980s and 1961.

    1. Excellent choice! I have to read more of Daeninckx, he’s a really interesting writer and not afraid to tackle controversial subjects. I have a BD version of Daeninckx’s excellent novel ‘Le Der des ders’ (Last of the Last – a saying referring to what the soldiers called the First World War), which is set in Paris in the early 1920s, in those confusing post-war years of black markets and corruption. It’s a beautiful recreation of a very noirish, sinister Paris – very Third Man.

  5. Oh, thank you for this! I love reading stories set in other countries, especially France, Italy, and India. I loved The Paris Wife but not the way Hemingway treated his women. Ugh!

  6. Hello, I am catching up belatedly, and I wonder if you’re already in Paris or back. If you ever want to meet here while in town, just let me know (I live not far from Etoile or Saint Lazare). We also plan to leave town, so this might not be convenient this time around, but perhaps next time?

    1. Sorry to have missed you, although it would have been a challenge to arrange to meet with the children. I thought you might be on holiday as well! We had a great time – Paris is so different when the weather is nice. Hope you had a good break as well!

  7. You can add L’herbe des Nuits (2012) by P. Modiano to the list….it is a vast labyrinth of crooked streets and passageways through Montparnasse and on to rue Blanche ( see cover book!). It is an amazing book!

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