If you had a trip to Paris planned in the next few months, you’re probably feeling pretty crushed right now. Our hearts go out to our Parisian friends, who are currently on lockdown. For the rest of us, Paris feels very far away. There’s nothing quite like a stroll along the Seine, a picnic in the shade of the Eiffel Tower, or a museum treasure hunting romp through the Louvre (we think so anyway). But here’s the next best thing: our favourite books about Paris to read while you can’t get there.
Psst! We’ve provided Amazon links to each book, but if you can, consider supporting a local bookshop, many of whom will deliver.
1) A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
There is perhaps no better book about Paris in the 1920s than Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. The memoir is based on a stack of notebooks that has spent more than three decades in a trunk in the basement of the Paris Ritz. Being stuck at home is no reason not to get stuck into this time capsule of Paris life in the roaring 20s – moveable as it is.
Buy A Moveable Feast on Amazon
2) The Paris Wife – Paula McLain
The Paris Wife is effectively A Moveable Feast from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, the first of Hemingway’s four wives. Primarily set in Paris, it’s a novel, so must be taken with a pinch of salt. But it is nice to read the perspective of one of the women affected by the author’s womanising. And, while it’s not considered a literary masterpiece in the same way as Hemingway’s work, it’s well-written and worth a read.
3) Paris: The Secret History – Andrew Hussey
This is not a book for those seeking a clean, pretty, Disney-fied version of Paris. It describes a city “made up of radically different spaces and multiple personalities, always at odds with each other and often in noisy collision”, as Andrew Hussey says in the book’s introduction. This introduction, incidentally, is titled “An Autopsy on an Old Whore”, which should tell you everything you need to know about the tone of the book. If you’re looking for a somewhat gritty, at times funny, and always honest history of Paris from its foundation by the Parisii in the 3rd Century BC to the present day, though – look no further.
Buy Paris: The Secret History on Amazon
4) Paris Echo – Sebastian Faulks
A modern novel set in Paris, Sebastian Faulks’ Paris Echo is a book of contrasts. The version of Paris it portrays will be familiar to anyone who has lived there in recent years. Beauty, elegance and sweeping boulevards are juxtaposed with the seedy, grubby underbelly of the city (yes, it has one like anywhere else!). The two main characters – an American academic and a runaway Moroccan teenager, also seem to have little in common. And the stories of women living in Paris under the German occupation provide a comparison to modern life à la parisienne. It’s a great book with a good story. It’s also clearly a love letter to Paris – as accurate in geography as it is in ambiance – and is worth a read just for that.
5) Bel-Ami – Guy de Maupassant
We couldn’t very well write a list of the best books about Paris without featuring at least one 19th Century classic (and there are several missing from this list). Maupassant’s Bel-Ami follows the corrupt rise to power of Georges Duroy, a character we would probably now call a sociopath. While Duroy’s merciless using of a string of both sexual and professional acquaintances is entertaining – if somewhat disturbing – the novel’s most important achievement is its portrayal of upper-middle class Paris at the turn of the century. Not a light read, but a fun and interesting one once you get into it.
6) The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurent
The Red Notebook is a lovely, if somewhat whimsical novella set in a realistic, if somewhat idealised Paris. It tells the story of Laurent, a middle-aged bookseller, who sets out to reunite a notebook he has found with its owner. Literary masterpiece it is not, and the level of serendipity and random chance might be annoying at times. But it’s a nice, soothing read, and as books about Paris go, it’ll do a pretty good job of transporting you there.
Buy The Red Notebook on Amazon
7) Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay
There’s no shortage of books set in Paris during the German Occupation, and Sarah’s Key is one of the more compelling. The book follows a dual-timeline structure, telling the story of a young Jewish girl arrested in the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up of 1942, and a modern-day American journalist asked to write an article for the 60th anniversary of the event. Even apart from the plot, which is both dark and disturbing, the novel offers a realistic view of two cities: modern-day Paris and the Paris of the 1940s.
8) All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
A novel set in Paris, Germany and Saint-Malo, All the Light We Cannot See is another depiction of France during the German Occupation. It follows the stories of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl living in Paris and later fleeing to Saint-Malo, and Werner, a young German boy skilled in repairing radios. It’s not a light or cheerful read, but it didn’t win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for nothing.
Buy All the Light We Cannot See on Amazon
9) A Year in the Merde – Stephen Clarke
Finally, A Year in the Merde is an “almost true” account of Englishman Stephen Clarke’s years living in Paris. The story of the protagonist, a 27-year-old Englishman tasked with setting up a chain of tearooms in a nation of coffee-drinkers, is fictional. But the wry, sarcastic and at times nonplussed take on French culture, language and people is what it’s worth reading for. As for the title, the merde is both figurative and literal – according to Clarke 600 Parisians are hospitalised each year thanks to the streets’ slippery canine deposits. There – you don’t feel so bad about cancelling that trip to Paris now, do you?
Buy A Year in the Merde on Amazon
More books about Paris
There are far too many great books about Paris to list in one blog post. Here are a few more of our favourites:
Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin
Down and Out In Paris and London by George Orwell
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Parisians by Graham Robb
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah
Did we miss anything?
Let us know your favourite books about Paris in the comments! And if you want more great content to get you through these strange times, including ways to experience our museums and cities when you’re stuck at home, sign up for updates from our blog.
Thanks Annie for these suggestions! I’d like to add a couple of my favourites: Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon (a funny yet poignant personal diary of a year spent in Paris with his young family, which started off with the month-long strike of 1995) and Joan de Jean’s The Essence of Style (or how the style and luxury, and the city of Paris as we know it today, were invented by Louis XIV).
Ooh, thanks Sarah – two more for my reading list!
I love the Gopnik, but haven’t read the Essence of Style. Will look into!
Love this post and can’t wait to read the Andrew Hussey (Autopsy of an old whore!) & Sebastian Faulks.
Have you read the Rosencrans Baldwin memoir (which reminds me of Gopnik’s tone, although Baldwin’s a better writer & also more sardonic, I don’t remember the title) & also I love Alistair Horne’s Seven Wonders of Paris, but you’ve prob read.
Love the list, hope you draw up another!
Two from my bookshelf I love are Ray Bradbury’s We’ll always have Paris, and Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville about the Surrealists fighting the Nazis in occupied Paris. Amazing book.
Thanks Craig – both added to my list!
I was happy that you included
George Orwell’s experience as a young man, Down and Out in Paris and London. It is one of my favorite
books. It teaches us about the life
of a flaneur, and a plongeur.
I was glad she did, too, as Down and Out in Paris and London is one of my faves. He’s good and gritty
Anyone interested in writers and artists living and working in Paris in the first half of twentieth century might like to dip into Marie-José Gransard’s Twentieth century Paris, A Literary Guide for Travellers published by Bloomsbury in 2020.
Thanks for this, I’m not aware of Twentieth Century Paris, a Literary Guide for Travellers. Is it a book of excerpts?
Will look into!
Almost anything by Richard Cobb is worthwhile about Paris. Similary, ‘Around and About Paris’ (3 vols) is an excellent series taking Paris arrondissement by arrondissement. Though you may have to hunt through second hand bookshops or Abebooks for copies nowadays, and Richard Cobb too.
For readers seeking a lighthearted romantic romp — which includes a guide to the Louvre’s most risqué works, and a not-entirely-voluntary tour of Père Lachaise cemetery — may I recommend Christa Menegas’ Paris Every Moment.