Just imagine Paris as it is now as spring begins—the Luxembourg Garden bursting with color, and smartly clothed natives strolling the streets, past imposing historical edifices and charming sidewalk cafés. No wonder that the City of Light is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations as well as the inspiration for many great books. Why not go on a literary tour and pick a title set in Paris for your next reading group meeting? We’ll get you started with five suggestions replete with vivid portraits of the city—read the brief excerpt from each to get a sense of how it captures Paris’s unique eternal spirit and ambience.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Few in her drowsy California suburb know Joan’s thrilling history: as a young American ballerina in Paris, she fell into a doomed, passionate romance with Soviet dance superstar Arslan Rusakov. After playing a leading role in his celebrated defection, she bowed out of the spotlight for good, heartbroken and humbled by her own modest career. But the past has a way of catching up with you sooner or later…. Dive in and experience the magic of Paris in 1973 vicariously through Shipstead’s heroine!
“For Joan, Paris has the feeling of waiting. All the elegance, the light and water and stone and refined bits of greenery, must be for something…. The city seems like an offering that has not been claimed. Its beauty is suspenseful. Joan has walked the boulevards and bridges and embankments, sat in the uncomfortable green metal chairs in the Tuileries, puttered down the Seine on a tourist barge, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, stared politely at countless paintings, been leered at and kissed at by so many men, stood in patches of harlequin light in a dozen chilly naves, bought a scarf she couldn’t afford, surreptitiously stroked the neatly stacked skulls in the catacombs, listened to jazz, gotten drunk on wine, ridden on the back of scooters, done everything she thinks she should in Paris, and still there has always been the feeling of something still to come, a purpose as yet unmet, an expectation.”
Fans of Irène Némirovsky’s timeless masterpiece Suite Française will be happy to find that her novel The Fires of Autumn, available in the US for the first time, reads like an absorbing prequel to it. You can hardly hope for a more authentic—or stirring—depiction of the lives of ordinary Parisians between the two world wars.
“They walked even further, right down to the Arc de Triomphe, then to the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, to the Boni de Castellane Villa whose lilac silk curtains fluttered out on to the balconies in the light breeze…. They studied the foreign princes, the millionaires, the famous courtesans. Madame Humbert feverishly sketched their hats into a notebook she took out of her handbag. The children watched in admiration. The adults felt contented, satisfied, without envy but full of pride: ‘For the pittance we paid for our chairs and the price of the metro, we can see all of this,’ the Parisians thought, ‘and we can enjoy it. Not only are we spectators at a performance, we are also actors (though with the most minor of roles), with our daughters so beautifully decked out in their brand-new hats, and our chatter and legendary gaiety. We could have been born somewhere else, after all,’ thought the Parisians, ‘in a place where even seeing the Champs-Élysées on a postcard would have made everyone’s heart beat faster!’’
This novel follows newcomer Willie Pears as she takes a job teaching at a Parisian center for immigrant girls, becomes inextricably connected to the ups and downs of their lives, and finds romance with their attractive and committed lawyer. Not to mention that the book makes Paris in the 1980s come alive! If you get lost in Conley’s stunning descriptions of the city, you can always check out her piece on incorporating maps in the novel.
“I try taking Boulevard de Strasbourg away from the crowds at the St. Denis metro stop to find the girls. This isn’t one of those gilded Paris streets heralding the end of a war or the launch of a new haute couture line. The sky’s already turned gray again, but it’s flanged lilac in places. The early dusk settles around the Beauty for You hair salon and a small pyramid of green-and-white shampoo bottles in the pharmacie window.”
Julie Orringer’s bestselling debut novel centers on Hungarian-Jewish student Andras Lévi who in 1937 comes to Paris from Budapest to pursue a degree in architecture. Later, his world is upended as Hitler’s armies’ European advances lead to Paris itself. For your discussion of Andras’s life in pre-World War II Paris, consult our Armchair Adventurer feature for The Invisible Bridge and read in-depth descriptions of his Parisian haunts.
“So it began: his life in Paris. He had an address, a brass key, a view. His view, like József ’s, included the Panthéon and the pale limestone clock tower of St.-Étienne-du-Mont. Across the street was the Collège de France, and soon enough he would learn to use it as a marker for his building: 34 rue des Écoles, en face du Collège de France.”
The chef who made French cuisine accessible to mainstream Americans with her indispensable Mastering the Art of French Cooking also wrote this bestselling memoir (with her nephew) about finding the passion for cooking and teaching. When Julia Child first moved to France for her husband’s job with the US State Department, not only did she fall in love with French food—but with Paris and its sights, too.
“Spring had sprung in Paris. In the park on the Île de la Cité, the grass was bright green and alive with new babies, doting grannies, and fussing nannies. Along the river, barges were tied up side-by-side, and their rigging was decorated with drying white sheets and socks. Women sunned and sewed pink underwear. Fishermen dangled their feet in the water and snacked on moules.”