Whether you’re headed to Paris next year for Fashion Week, going coastal on the Riviera, or planning to spend your holiday vacation drinking all the champagne in Champagne, the best preparation for your trip to France is to send your brain there ahead of time — figuratively speaking, of course. And when it comes to feeding your inner Francophile, great works of fiction and poignant memoirs are where it’s at. After all, the landscape, people, and certain je ne sais quoi of France have been inspiring writers for centuries. Wondering where to start? Here are 5 gorgeous books that’ll have you ready to say, “Bonjour!” in no time. (Or, okay, in the case of Proust, in perhaps a leetle bit more than no time.)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo
Before you walk into the soaring interior of the most famous cathedral in Paris, see the city from atop its belfry in Victor Hugo’s classic novel about architecture, passion, romance, and religion. Written to immortalize Notre Dame’s beauty and history at a time when the cathedral was beginning to crumble, this book ensured that it would instead become a beloved, iconic relic of ancient France.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
A concierge at a Parisian apartment building, Renée Michel takes great pains to conceal her second, secret life as an intellectual—lest it upset the delicate prejudices of her extremely upper-class tenants. But when she develops an unexpected rapport with an unbalanced girl, Renée begins to understand that the beauty of art, literature, and music is in how it connects us to each other. An international best-seller, this book is a beautiful depiction of the depth and mystery in what the French call “la vie quotidienne.”
My Life in France, by Julia Child
Before she became a household name as the host of her lauded and widely loved cooking show, Julia Child had three passionate love affairs: one with the country of France, one with the culinary profession, and one with the man who became her husband. This book remembers all of them in rich, vivid, and delicious detail, complete with photographs.
Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins
There’s a reason why France and romance are synonymous—and it’s not ’cause they kind of rhyme, as American Anna discovers in this darling young adult novel. An expat teenager attending an international boarding school in Paris, Anna finds her culture shock and homesickness starting to ebb when she meets the charming Etienne St. Claire. (With a name like that, he has to be good.) Sweet, sassy, and never saccharine, Anna and the French Kiss will have you longing for your own international fling from the moment your flight touches down in the City of Lights.
In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust
Clocking in at a whopping seven books (and about 4,000 pages), Proust’s epic series isn’t exactly a light read; if you can finish even one volume before you go, you’ll be in better shape than most. But its layered, esoteric, enigmatic journey through one man’s education in life, love, and art is arguably the most famous literary work ever produced in France…and when you’re sipping wine and discussing the nostalgic imagery in Swann’s Way with some attractive person in a beret well into the wee hours of the morning, you’ll be glad you put in the effort.
What’s your favorite France-flavored read?