“I don’t know whether it will be read by everyone,” Hugo said of his 1,500-page tome, “but it is meant for everyone.” Though it’s set in Paris, the young revolutionaries’ rebellion sparks in the hearts of all readers, French and otherwise. You know how the musical “Les Mis,” with its anthemic songs, feels universal? It’s the same for the book that inspired it all.
The Count of Monte Cristo
Poor Edmond Dantès is in the wrong place at the wrong time: Delivering a package to the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte has him accused of treason and exiled to the isolated, maddening Château d’If. But instead of wasting away in a distant prison, Dantès escapes and reinvents himself as the mysterious, charismatic Count of Monte Cristo. What follows is a classic tale of revenge, with Dantès weaseling his way back into the lives of everyone who betrayed him—including his best friend and fiancée—through psychological manipulation, poisoning, and the unearthing of old secrets.
The Lady of the Camellias
Alexandre Dumas fils
Turns out talent runs in the family, and just as dark: Alexandre Dumas’ son (who went by the same name, with the suffix fils) wrote La Dame aux Camélias, a thinly fictionalized account of his affair with mistress Marie Duplessis. Like Duplessis, the tragic heroine Marguerite Gautier—who wore a white camellia to advertise her availability to potential suitors, and a red one during her time of the month—breaks poor Armand Duval’s heart before succumbing to consumption. Love was rough in the 1800s.
Imagine a novel that even the French needed to censor! Despite now being a classic, Flaubert’s novel still shocks readers with its depictions of Emma Bovary: constricted by her dull marriage in northern provincial France, she embarks on a series of heady, erotic affairs with all manner of inappropriate men. “Madame Bovary” also proves that the most scandalous stories don’t all have to take place in Paris.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
Hugo’s intention was to raise awareness about the neglect and defacement of Gothic architecture, but his classic is perhaps better remembered for all of the characters inside Notre-Dame: deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo, his corrupt adopted father Archdeacon Claude Frollo, and the mesmerizing dancer Esmerelda. Then again, he does really make you envision the light coming through the stained-glass windows just right.
The Necklace and Other Tales
Guy De Maupassant
Second only to Shakespeare in terms of adaptations of his body of work, Maupassant penned about 300 incisive short stories about class, money, and sex. One of the most well-known, “The Necklace” concerns a fraught friendship in which one woman borrows another’s expensive necklace, only to lose it and go into poverty to replace it. But Maupassant was also known for his twist endings, and the social commentary they made. This collection amasses 30 stories, split into three sections: Tales of French Life, Tales of War, and Tales of the Supernatural.
Wine and War
You’ve heard stories of various cities safeguarding their priceless art from the Nazis during World War II, but perhaps it comes as no surprise that the French were equally protective of their wine. This compelling account from the Kladstrups—who later charted the bubbly rise of champagne throughout history—examines how the French ingeniously hid the plants and bottles while maintaining their dignity through a time of identities being erased.
Paris in the Fifties
It’s hard to believe that one man could have been in the right place at the right time, but Karnow’s memoir of his decade-plus as “Time” magazine’s Paris correspondent reads like a who’s-who of the luminaries who passed through the City of Light. If you want to learn about haute couture and haute cuisine from the experts, Karnow is the man to impart that wisdom.
An orphan born with no scent and run down by the streets of Paris, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille becomes obsessed with mastering the art of perfume making in Grasse and bottling up the perfect essence of the lovely young women who cross his path. As his need to preserve these smells turns into a bloodlust—scentlust?—Grenouille perfects a scent that will give him control over the society that would have left him on the street to die.
Chocolate would be a dangerous indulgence in the small town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, controlled as it is by the local priest, at any time. But when the daring Vianne opens a chocolaterie at the start of Lent—and quickly entices several regulars!—she sparks a battle of self-denial versus self-gratification.
The Billionaire's Vinegar
We know that wine bottles can be valued at outrageous sums, but is a single bottle worth over $150,000? If it possesses a history that traces back to the Nazi occupation and Thomas Jefferson, perhaps. Wallace traces the mind-boggling heritage of this particular bottle, through the auctioneers, tasters, and businessmen who were bent on finding out if it were some long con, or if it were just really that good.
The Da Vinci Code
Brown’s art-themed mystery is pulpy fun, with a distinctive opening for other mysteries to beat: a murdered curator posed like the Vitruvian Man in the Louvre. Anyone who’s gotten close enough to the Mona Lisa to try and divine her secrets will appreciate all of the Easter eggs scattered throughout ancient and modern Europe.
Anna and the French Kiss
While Perkins’ debut novel is vicarious fun for anyone who would have wished they could spend a year abroad studying in Paris, she also touches upon the less exciting aspects of spending your last year of high school with strangers—namely, struggling to communicate in a language you can barely grasp, and trying not to get too distracted by a hopeless crush on a charming French boy who goes by St. Clair. French kisses are not as easy as they’re made out to be in the first of Perkins’ YA romances.
Three Strong Women
NDiaye was the first woman to win the Prix Goncourt, which includes Simone de Beauvoir among its honorees, for her story of three women whose lives cross back and forth between France and Africa. While toxic boyfriends, merciless in-laws, and estranged fathers are the various impetuses for these journeys, it’s how Fanta, Khady, and Norah wrest back control that makes them such compelling examples of feminine fortitude.
The Lady and the Unicorn
As she did in “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Chevalier traces the legacy of another enthralling piece of art: six tapestries depicting a maiden and the mythical creature linked to her purity. Hanging today in Paris’ Musée de Cluny, the tapestries contain a number of secrets woven in—Chevalier pulls those figurative threads in her narrative of the designer and weaver who brought the tapestries into being.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
If you recovered from a coma only to discover that you had locked-in syndrome, you would no doubt be tempted to retreat within yourself. But French “Elle” editor Bauby chose the opposite: He used his left eye, the only part of his body not paralyzed, to dictate a memoir about his charmed life before the stroke and the daily challenges and joys of locked-in syndrome—including playing on the beach with his family and taking visitors at the hospital at Berck-sur-Mer in northern France.
Love, betrayal, war, murder, art—Paris possesses as many different stories as its arrondissements, and it’s only one part of France. From the South of France to sleepy rural towns to the City of Light, these novels, memoirs, and essay collections trace the stories of priceless jewelry, even more priceless wine, secretive art, murders in the Louvre and back alleys, renowned courtesans and American expatriates looking for the freedom their country fails to offer. These books are also linked to one another; fictionalized imaginings of famous writers are contrasted with those writers’ famous works, while a certain necklace, despite being lost, keeps resurfacing through the centuries.
Bookshelf curated by Natalie Zutter.
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