Friday, 18 July 2014

What to read: Books about Paris

I consider this as quite a popular type of post. Personally, I have read numerous articles dedicated to the best books situated in Paris, or more generally in France. However, I must admit I am purposely on the look for those kind of lists as reading about France has always been close to my heart. Unsurprisingly, one of my all-time favourite books is Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo – it is a classic, and if you have never read it, make sure you find the time – I thoroughly recommend it (do NOT rely on watching some Hollywood movie version of it as they like to completely alter the plot). I am definitely going to dedicate a post specifically for classic French literature as it is among my favourites. This is not that post. Here I offer some titles that you might have not heard of, but are still worthy of your attention if you want to read about Paris. Some of them are better in quality than others but all of them are good in their own means.

1.   The Girl at the Lion d’Or by Sebastian Faulks

Starting with the one of the highest literary quality. The name of Sebastian Faulks might ring a bell? That is due to his popularity because of another one of his novels – Birdsong. The Girl at the Lion d’Or has that same feeling of a timeless classic that you might get from his other work – it is a beautifully written story, full of utterly believable, engaging characters.

Set in a little French village between the two world wars, the story is about a passionate love affair between a young girl, whose life is marked by abandonment, and a rich married man, a veteran from the Great War. Both of them have been affected by the war in two very different ways, and in their eternal struggles they find another person to care for. Faulks is great when it comes to historical fiction and this is not an exception – the narrative is so flawless, it removes the ideas of time and space, and suddenly rural France in the 30s feels like the most natural and well-known place that the reader could find himself in. The descriptions of the people, the landscape, the tiny streets of Janvilliers, all of it comes to life under the hand of a masterful artist – Faulks paints the perfect picture of a time, when people are still trying to come in terms with the greatest war they have seen – yet, the feeling of a new threat is on the horizon, and there is still some air of uncertainty about the future.

The perfect read if you want to know something deeper about France – not just the prettiness of Versailles, but the history that defines a nation.

2.    The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Keeping it in the past with the second novel I highly recommend: The Paris Wife is set in the best time a book about Paris could be set in – the roaring twenties! The times when Paris is more in than ever – everyone wants to be there and run into the great bohemians of the age in a charming café in the Latin Quarter. And this book is dedicated to no other wife, but Ernest Hemingway’s first wife – Hadley.

Paula McLain beautifully writes this from first person – so, as a result the reader witnesses everything from Hadley’s perspective. We are there to meet Hemingway for a very first time, we are there being besotted by his persona, we are with him when he moves to Paris. But most of all, through Hadley, it is easy to see all the struggles that come with being a genius – a literary master, whose books are today sold in millions around the world, but whose beginnings were quite humble. This is the perfect read to get to the heart of his story – through his first marriage, it is easy to gain some idea of his character and even to understand more thoroughly, why decades later, he would be the man to take his own life. Furthermore, the book offers a wonderful insight into the period when Hemingway was writing The Sun Also Rises, making this a valuable read for literary buffs. But above all, this is a story about Hadley – a woman that might be overlooked when considering Hemingway’s life, but who should definitely not be easily forgotten.

3.    Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard
Fast-forward to Paris in the 21st century and you get Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris. Now, this is a more practical read as it gives you the idea of the Paris of today (plus some insight into the places to visit). I rank this book very highly as it is a perfectly charming read that can easily transport you to the city of lights due to the lightness of the language, and the effortlessness of the narrative.

In this book, Bard tells us her very own story of meeting her French husband, and deciding to completely change her life by moving to Paris with him (honestly, who can blame her?). What makes the book utterly delicious is the inclusion of French recipes at the end of each chapter – duck, goat cheese, sardines, trout, scallops, macaroons – there is something for everyone. But what really makes this book a must is that it proves to me that a modern author can write a beautiful, true story set in Paris, full of emotion. That is, in an age where we are constantly bombarded by chick-lit of low quality, and constantly reminded that the authors are usually women…it is quite refreshing to know there is a woman who can write in such a beautiful way without falling into the clichés of the trade. Give Lunch in Paris a read and you won’t regret it.

4.    The Art of French Kissing by Kristin Harmel

And here is something that definitely falls in the aforementioned category of the chick-lit. The Art of French Kissing is for the women who want a quick escape to Paris but have no time for it, or the ones who are, indeed, going to Paris in a few weeks, and want some more ideas into places to eat and drink. No, this is not a guidebook, but yes – it gives some good insight into where to go to enjoy the best coq au vin or tart tatin in Paris (the characters visit quite a few restaurants and bars along the pages of the book, and their whereabouts are conveniently shared with the reader).

As for the story, it is nothing ground-breaking in the chick-lit genre – a good-looking American girl just loses her fiancé, her job and her place in the matter of a couple of days, so she jumps into the opportunity to visit an old friend who lives in Paris. There, she is included in her small PR company, handling a new big French rock star. The story is charming, but the author does underestimate her readers – for me, the ‘big’ twist is visible from miles away, even without wearing glasses. Nevertheless, you can easily enjoy this short novel for what it is – charming, easy to read and fabulously set in Paris. 

My favourite quote from The Art of French Kissing - spot on
And what is your favourite book set in Paris/France?

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