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French literature is so much more than Les Misèrables and Madame Bovary. Sure, they're classics, but they aren't exactly light beach reads. Pick up one of these French books (available in English, except where noted) instead.

Asterix & Obelisk comic books, Rene Goscinny

Astérix & Obelix

René Goscinny
CATEGORIES: Classic/Culturally Significant | Sense of Culture

In France, Astérix is more popular than Mickey Mouse. The massively popular comics, which first appeared in 1959, have been made into numerous films, board games, and video games. You can even visit Parc Astérix, outside of Paris.

At Night All Blood Is Black

CATEGORIES: Classic/Culturally Significant

In this winner of numerous awards, including the prestigious International Booker Prize, a Senegalese tirailleur (a member of the French army’s colonial infantry) loses his close friend while fighting in World War I. Originally published in French as Frère d’âme (Soul Brother), the book was translated by poet Anna Moschovakis. Barack Obama chose the novel as one of his 2021 summer reads.


Book cover: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Alison Anderson, Muriel Barbery
CATEGORIES: Classic/Culturally Significant

A bestseller around the world and translated into more than 40 languages, the novel brims with wit and intelligence — and not just in the voice of main character Renée Michel. There are so many allusions in here (French and otherwise) that you should be prepared to jot down notes at every page turn.

France: An Adventure History

Graham Robb
CATEGORIES: Person/Place/Event

Whether you’re a bike-touring enthusiast or a history buff, Robb’s variegated tales from the l’Hexagone are a tempting feast in what could be considered the third of a Gallic trilogy. “Even readers who think they know France will discover the lives and voices of forgotten characters,” says the review from The Washington Post. “Who ever heard of Ogmios, the Gauls’ name for the founder of the land that became France?” After reading this book, you’ll be your travel companions’ best friend — or worst nightmare.

Le Grand Secret, René Barjavel

Le Grand Secret

René Barjavel
CATEGORIES: Classic/Culturally Significant

Science-fiction writer Barjavel isn’t well-known in the U.S., but his works have had a profound mark on the genre. In Le grand secret (often translated as The Immortals), scientists looking for a cure for cancer accidentally create a virus that stops aging — which turns out to have far more devastating consequences than you might think. (French edition)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Victor Hugo
CATEGORIES: Classic/Culturally Significant | Person/Place/Event

The internationally renowned French Gothic novel, originally titled Notre-Dame de Paris. 1482, is named for the most visited monument in Paris today — and that’s no coincidence. Hugo wrote the book to extol the virtues of Gothic architecture, which at that time was being replaced by newer styles. The book had the intended effect: The cathedral underwent extensive renovation and Gothic revival architecture took on newfound popularity. Today, the love story of bell-ringer Quasimodo and French Roma teenager Esmeralda remains as enduring as the cathedral’s flying buttresses.

Project Gutenberg

Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Jules Verne
CATEGORIES: Classic/Culturally Significant

Often called the Grandfather of Science Fiction, Jules Verne is beloved the world over. No matter which of his books you choose to start with, you can’t go wrong, but his 1864(!) endeavor has stood the test of time and remains perhaps the most influential of his oeuvre.

Project Gutenberg

The Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
CATEGORIES: Classic/Culturally Significant

Is it a hat, or a snake that has eaten an elephant? So asks one of the best-selling and most translated books ever published, an enduring children’s classic that was also voted the best book of the 20th century in its homeland of France. The author himself lived a fascinating life, having achieved as much fame as an aviator as for his writing.

The Most Secret Memory of Men

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr
CATEGORIES: Classic/Culturally Significant

Sarr’s novel tells of a Senegalese writer living in Paris who discovers the manuscript of a forgotten writer, known in his time as the “black Rimbaud.” The story is a fictionalized version of the real-life story of Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem, who disappeared from public life after being accused of plagiarism. La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (the original French title) earned Sarr the Prix Goncourt in 2021, making him the first Sub-Saharan African — and one of the youngest writers ever — to be awarded the prestigious prize.

My Life in France

Alex Prud'homme, Julia Child
CATEGORIES: Sense of Culture

California-born Child is often credited with introducing French cuisine to the American public, both through her groundbreaking cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television programs, including The French Chef. In her memoir, co-written with her grandnephew, Child tells about her favorite things in life: “her husband, France [her ‘spiritual homeland’], and the ‘many pleasures of cooking and eating.'” The book, published two years after her death, became the basis for the film Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.

Remembrance of Things Past

Marcel Proust
CATEGORIES: Classic/Culturally Significant

Considered by many literary scholars and critics as “the definitive modern novel,” À la recherche du temps perdu has become known as In Search of Lost Time since its 1992 translation, which caused an increase in popularity for both the book and author, including the founding of The Proust Society of America. Such success is almost ironic considering Proust paid for the first volume to be published after it was turned down by editors, including famed author André Gide, who later wrote Proust an apology. Swann’s Way, the first and most well-known of the novel’s seven parts, contains the famous “episode of the madeleine,” in which the protagonist recalls childhood memories after enjoying the namesake cookie dunked in tea, as well as “Du côté de chez Swann,” a novella often taught as a stand-alone text in French schools.

Project Gutenberg

Windward Heights

Maryse Condé
CATEGORIES: Sense of Culture

In the hands of Guadaloupe’s award-winning Condé, Wuthering Heights receives a Caribbean retelling, with her home country and Cuba as backgrounds. Growing up in the French region of Guadaloupe, Condé came to prominence with her third novel, 1984’s Ségou.

The Wizard of the Kremlin

Giuliano da Empoli
CATEGORIES: Person/Place/Event

A finalist for the Prix Goncourt, da Empoli’s novel (Le mage du Kremlin) is a cross between fiction and political analysis, with many real-life personages — including Vladimir Putin — making appearances. The line between truth and fiction is so blurred that some critics claimed that reading the book is akin to “sitting on a sofa next to Putin,” and booksellers showcased the novel in their current events sections, particularly due to the novel’s timely publication less than two months after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

A Year in Provence

Peter Mayle
CATEGORIES: Sense of Culture

The South of France, as seen through the eyes of a British expat, is equal parts delight and frustration. Mayle’s wit and candid humor helped catapult the popularity of his memoir, which spawned several sequels, television series, and radio shows.

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