13 Must-Read Books If You Wish You Were in Paris Right Now

13 Must-Read Books If You Wish You Were in Paris Right Now

Tuesday, 1 September, 2020

With its dramatic history, iconic landmarks, and irrepressible parfum of romance, Paris is a compelling setting for stories that run the gamut from sweet and sultry to suspenseful and sinister.

We’ve collected our favorite novels and nonfiction to transport you to the City of Lights. These stories feature wildly divergent characters — detectives, thieves, spies, romantics, chefs, inventors, and adventurers. But they all have one thing in common: Their stories could only take place in Paris.

To hear us discuss some of these books and the things that make Paris a fantastic place, listen to our podcast Paris: It’s Always a Good Idea.


Haunting Paris - Mamta Chaudhry

Haunting Paris
> Mamta Chaudhry

Pianist Sylvie recently lost Julien, the great love of her life. It should be a celebratory time — it’s 1989; the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution — but she’s mourning the life she and Julien had together. Music usually whisks her away to another place, but not even the piano can provide an escape from her grief.

One day in her flat on Île Saint-Louis, she finds a mysterious letter in Julien’s desk, and she feels a spark of something that begins to bring her back to life. The handwritten note seems to hold a clue to a mystery that plagued Julien his whole life. Sylvie sets out to find the author of the letter and to unravel the secrets of Julien’s past. She’s soon confronting dark memories of the Nazi occupation of Paris and the Holocaust.

While Sylvie follows the clues across Paris, she’s watched over by Julien’s ghost. He’s a spectral flaneur, wistfully wandering the streets of Paris alone, keeping an eye on his true love, and drifting through Paris history. We experience the city’s landmarks and past through his eyes: romantic, exhilarating, lonely, and sometimes shrouded in the gauzy haze of memory. {more}

[T]he city lies spread out at my feet, a symphony of spires and domes and towers. Here and there, monoliths of glass and steel thrust themselves like brash adolescents into a conversation they don’t quite understand. People said the same about the Eiffel Tower when it went up for the first centennial, but I admire the way its sequined lights shine like early stars in the dusk, the filigreed ironwork making it seem for all its substance to float weightlessly, an inspired emblem for the City of Light — in both senses of the word — not just luminosity but also lightness, which we prize above all, in wit, in art, in life. — Mamta Chaudhry

Spitfire: A Livy Nash Mystery - M.L. Huie

> M.L. Huie

Livy Nash spent the war fighting in the French resistance. It gave her purpose and the love of her life — until betrayal left her with nothing except a hardened heart. Now she’s alone and jaded, left behind by the more respectable war heroes and doomed to a life of… what? A single woman in a world that wants her to return to her pre-war, lady-like situation of looking pretty and doing as she’s told.

Then Ian Fleming buys her a drink and throws her a lifeline that proves to be more complicated than it seems: He offers her a job as a foreign correspondent, but Livy soon realizes that typing stories is not what he has in mind. Fleming is recruiting an espionage unit to fight ‘the next war’ which ‘began before the last even ended.’ He sends Livy to Paris on a mission to track down a traitor and, perhaps, find the fierce version of herself that she lost.

In the post-war days, Paris and London are glamorous and treacherous; champagne and threats flow with equal abandon. As Livy meets with contacts and follows clues, we traverse the streets of Paris with her, dashing under bridges, drinking wine, eating chocolate pastries by the Seine, and outrunning Russian agents in dark alleys. {more}

Note: We love this on audio, too.

Tonight at the French Embassy, there’s a soiree, and you are cordially invited… I trust you’ll keep that Lancashire sass under wraps. You enter the party as Mademoiselle Bélanger, and you leave the party as the same. It’s a simple assignment. Maintain your cover at all costs. Like falling off a log for you, darling. Oh, and you’ll be receiving microfilm from an operative at the party. Only trouble is, we’ve no idea who it is. — M.L. Huie

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
> Muriel Barbery

On the outside, Renée fits the stereotype of an inconsequential concierge. She’s middle-aged, prickly, irascible, dowdy, her television playing nonstop in the background. Little do the residents know that it’s all by design. Renée is secretly a reader and deep thinker who consciously dons her frumpiness like armor against the wealthy, vapid neighbors she serves in her building.

And Paloma. Paloma is a typical pre-teen in her disdain for her family. She documents resentments of her family in a journal labeled ‘profound thoughts,’ enumerating her issues with their wealth, their frivolousness, their privilege, their hypocrisy. She yearns for life to prove to her that there is real beauty in the world.

When Renée and Paloma strike up an unlikely friendship, it upends the lives of everyone in the building. But the simple plot is merely an excuse to spend time wandering in the minds of these two women. They take turns narrating the story, and their first-person flights of fancy are a delight. They dish on philosophy, art, literature, class, love — all the big stuff — with a world-weary enthusiasm (Renée) and a vibrant naiveté (Paloma) that’s impossible to resist. {more}

Note: This is also fantastic on audiobook with two narrators who bring Renée and Paloma vividly to life through their voice acting and accents.

The tea ritual: such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed. — Muriel Barbery

Little - Edward Carey

> Edward Carey

This is the (mostly) true story of a tiny girl who grew up to be the diminutive but fierce Madame Tussaud, she of wax museum fame. Her story begins in a Swiss village and takes us to the Monkey House in Paris, the Palace of Versailles, and a prison during the French Revolution — all in the company of uncanny figures made of wax.

After her parents’ deaths, Marie, a.k.a., Little, is apprenticed to a wax sculptor in Paris. The streets are muddy. The house creeks and is always cold. And her adopted ‘family’ is dominated by a tyrannical widow determined to exclude Little from all human comforts and affection.

As Little and her guardian, the real-life physician and wax sculptor Dr. Philippe Curtius, gain notoriety for their waxworks, she finds herself among famous Parisians, including the author Louis-Sébastien Mercier and Princess Elizabeth, the sister of Louis XVI. For a brief, glowing moment, Little is on her way to being the toast of the town. But fortunes change quickly when one is associated with a royal court.

This grim and grimy fairy tale of Little’s life is an inspiring one that shows what happens when a miniature person embodies a big talent and an outsized dose of grit. {more}

For this is true: Curtius, in his great hall, has abolished privilege! Curtius has dismissed all laws of etiquette. Curtius has done away with class. Where else in the world might a pauper approach a king? Might the mediocre touch genius? Might ugliness draw close — without shame — to beauty? The Cabinet is the only place. — Edward Carey

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank - Thad Carhart

Tucked into a cozy, shop-lined street on the Left Bank in Paris is the alluring and mysterious ‘Desforges Pianos: outillage, fournitures.’ When Thad Carhart enquires at the shop about buying a used piano, he’s unceremoniously shuffled out the front door by a man who appeared through a mysterious door at the back. The author returns several times before finally getting a personal introduction and being welcomed into the holy of holies: the backroom stocked with pianos in all stages of their lives.

He cultivates a friendship with Luc, the piano restorer, through their shared love of the instrument and its history. And this slowly unfolding memoir traces their relationship in parallel with the storied past of the piano. Carhart takes us deep into the piano’s development and mechanics with chapters on how the instrument is made and how it’s tuned. But there are personal reflections, too, as he recalls his childhood in Paris, begins piano lessons anew, and welcomes the piano that’s stolen his heart into his small Paris apartment.

Carhart is a keen observer, and his prose will transport you immediately to the Paris streets he loves so well. It’s a treat to get an intimate look inside the spaces where tourists and expats are often excluded. {more}

Motionless, he held the final chord for a long moment, and we felt — I could almost say watched — the harmony rise into the light-filled cold of the atelier. — Thad Carhart

The Bookseller - Mark Pryor

The Bookseller
> Mark Pryor

Meet Hugo, our rugged, steadfast hero. He’s head of security at the U.S. embassy in Paris, and while he may be a tough guy on the outside, he has the heart of a poet and is a devoted reader.

The action kicks off when Hugo sees his favorite bouquiniste kidnapped from in front of his riverside display of books. Hugo does what any self-respecting former CIA agent would: He starts poking his nose into business where some thugs are very convinced it doesn’t belong.

The dazzling city of Paris is a starring character in the drama, and its history nicely mirrors Hugo’s own personal turmoil and heartbreak. Plus, there are so many books: rare volumes and paperbacks and libraries and bookstalls. {more}

If peace had a smell, it would be the smell of a library full of old, leather-bound books. — Mark Pryor

The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
> Brian Selznick

Another Hugo! This one is a charming scamp of a little boy. He’s an orphan and a thief who spends most of his time alone in a Paris train station, fixing the clocks and hiding from the rest of the world to ensure his survival.

One day, while helping himself to parts he needs for a project, he crosses paths with the old man who runs the toy booth in the train station — and a little girl who might be as much of an outsider as Hugo himself. He’s soon caught up in a mystery that involves an automaton, a stolen key, secret messages, family secrets — and, perhaps most dangerous of all — tender feelings.

This is a magical story without magic — a grand adventure tale with the shimmer of fantasy, grounded in the real world. When real-life events enter the story, the stakes for Hugo and his friends are higher than anyone could have predicted. {more}

I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too. — Brian Selznick

The Red Notebook - Antoine Laurain

The Red Notebook
> Antoine Laurain

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to own a darling neighborhood bookshop in Paris, this is the novel for you. Bonus: It’s a romantic caper as sweet and satisfying (and endearingly flaky) as a pain au chocolat.

Our would-be hero Laurent Letellier is the owner of the Le Cahier Rouge bookshop. He’s a fixture in his Parisian neighborhood and has a routine that suits him. But one day, he finds a mauve handbag on the street. Was it dropped? Lost? Stolen? Inside, there’s no identification or phone — just a red notebook filled with feminine handwriting, ‘sometimes with crossings out, underlinings, or words written in capital letters.’ Suddenly, he’s in the grip of a small adventure. He becomes fascinated with the woman who jotted down her thoughts ‘as the whim took her, on café terraces or on the Métro.’ He makes it his mission to find her and return her handbag.

As Laurent follows the meager clues to her identity, he travels from police station to bookshop to dry cleaner and café, through the village streets of Paris lined with small businesses and neighborhood characters. We get to know the quirky people in his life and the city of Paris itself. {more}

As he left the building, he glanced over at the metal shutter of the shop. Shortly he would raise it by turning a key in the electronic panel, then nod a greeting to his neighbor Jean Martel (of Le Temps Perdu — antiques, bric-a-brac, bought and sold) enjoying a café crème on the terrace of Jean Bart. He would also wave to the lady from the dry cleaner’s who in turn would wave back through the window. Then after the shutter was up, he would look over his own shop window as he always did with its ‘New fiction,’ ‘Art books, ‘Bestsellers,’ alongside ‘Books we love’ and ‘Must reads.’ — Antoine Laurain

Tasting Paris - Clotilde Dusoulier

Tasting Paris
> Clotilde Dusoulier

This book from native Parisian Clotilde Dusoulier reads like a travel guide and cookbook fell madly in love and created a beautiful handbook that embodies the best of both. Inspired by the recipes on restaurant menus in every arrondissement, each page of this book is a temptation: full-page photos of landmarks; colorful, rustic, tempting food; essays that show that the city, even for life-long Parisians, holds a particular kind of romance.

French cooking is a celebration of fresh, local ingredients. But the menus of Paris are also multicultural, with flavors from India, Morocco, the Caribbean, Armenia, Lebanon, Turkey, Vietnam, and Tunisia, as well as Jewish and vegetarian influences, and recipes inspired by Michelin stars.

The book is organized by daypart with short essays, like this love letter to the morning: ‘a bakery, shelves loaded, the warm smell of croissants wafting out of the sidewalk vents; and a neighborhood café, where a handful of customers gulp down expressos at the zinc counter.’ This is a step-by-step way to bring the tastes of Paris into your own kitchen — and to plan your personal eating tour through the city on your next trip. {more}

What I think of most when I wander my hometown is food: Saint-Germain-des-Prés, to me, means macarons from Pierre Hermé and Les Halles roast chicken from the Champeaux brasseries. The Tuileries, bordered on the north by rue de Rivoli, bring to mind Angelina and thus hot chocolate, and the cafés near Porte Dauphine, where I spent my student years, evoke the satisfying croque-madame, the velvety yolk dripping down the crust of the bread. Barbés seduces with couscous; Belleville comforts with Chinese rice soup… it’s all here waiting for you to hop off at the closest metro station, push open a door, and walk in. — Clotilde Dusoulier

Tunnel of Bones - Victoria Schwab

Tunnel of Bones
> Victoria Schwab

Cassidy Blake could be a totally typical 12-year-old girl, except that her best friend Jacob is a ghost, her parents are hosts of a reality TV show in which they hunt specters, and Cassidy has a gift for moving through the Veil between this world and the next.

Cassidy’s in Paris with her family and Jacob, doing the typical touristy stuff: Eating croissants, visiting the Eiffel Tower, and… oh, yeah! protecting the City of Love from being destroyed by an angry ghost.

The plot delivers escapist fun that transports you straight to the most iconic places in Paris — the Jardin des Tuileries, the Louvre, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Notre-Dame de Paris, the metro, and, of course, the Paris Catacombs. But it’s also a story of bravery, friendship, and the high cost and benefits of loyalty to the people we love the most. {more}

When we reach the street, I stop, breathless not from the climb but from the sight in front of me. We’re standing at the edge of a massive square. A circle, really, surrounded by pale stone buildings that reflect the late-afternoon light. Gold trim shines on every surface, from the sidewalk rails to lampposts, fountains to balconies, and in the distance, the Eiffel Tower rises like a steel spear. Mom spreads her arms, as if she can catch the whole city in one giant hug. ‘Welcome to Paris.’ — Victoria Schwab

The Only Street in Paris - Elaine Sciolino

Welcome to the rue des Martyrs, an ordinary but extraordinary street in Paris. You’ll meet the friendly and opinionated neighbors, the resident ghost, cheesemongers and greengrocers, bookshop owners, and a cabaret vamp — and through their stories, fall in love with Paris.

Author Elaine Sciolina is the former Paris Bureau Chief of The New York Times. In a remarkable confluence of traits, she’s both a fantastic writer and good with people. This makes her an astute guide to the idiosyncrasies and special pleasures of life in Paris. The people who populate her neighborhood are opened up to us as readers in a way we could never manage on our own in real life.

Insightful, evocative, and sweet without sentimentality, this memoir is the best that armchair travel can be. It will transport you immediately to this particular — and somehow, universal – street in Paris. ‘I can never be sad on the rue des Martyrs,’ Sciolino writes, and as you grow to know her neighborhood, you’ll understand why. {more}

The explanation about the martyrs turned out to be a long and complicated tale. The French are obsessed with history, partly out of a genuine affinity for the past, partly from a desire to cling to lost glory. Most people I asked had an answer to the question of how the rue des Martyrs got its name. And if they didn’t have an answer, they had a well-argued theory. The French learn in childhood that constructing a beautiful argument is more important than which side to take. Only the most self-confident confess to ignorance. — Elaine Sciolino

Vintage 1954 - Antoine Laurain

Vintage 1954
> Antoine Laurain

This story embodies the whimsical, madcap, effervescent, wistful, romantic Paris of daydreams. The story starts in 2017 in an apartment in Paris. A group of people, some of whom are well-acquainted and others who have just met, are sharing a vintage bottle of Beaujolais from 1954. There’s a gothy antiques restorer, an American named Bob (naturally) from Milwaukee who’s visiting the Paris for a personal and poignant reason, a cocktail mixologist, and the host, a très français Frenchman who is unused to hosting company.

But something magical is happening this evening. The wine flows, as does the conversation. Perhaps the stars have aligned just right to form lasting friendships. They part on the warmest of terms — and the next morning, they all wake up in Paris of the 1950s.

As our confused heroes try to sort out just what has happened to them, we explore at their sides — Harry’s bar, the Eiffel Tour, the Louvre, and, eventually, the French countryside and the vineyards of Chateau Saint-Antoine. Warning: This feel-good read will make you homesick for Paris, even if you’ve never walked its cobbled streets. {more}

My friends, we are about to drink more than a wine: we’re going to drink a bygone era. A liquid that’s been in this bottle since 1954. This bottle was laid down in a different France, a different world. Back then, it was the Fourth Republic… people were going to see the films of Jean Gabin and were listening to Edith Piaf sing on the radio; few French people had televisions, and more than a quarter of the population lived off the land. All that is contained in what we are about to drink… To a bygone age! — Antoine Laurain

The Godmother - Hannelore Cayre

The Godmother
> Hannelore Cayre

Say bonjour to Patience Portefeux, the 53-year-old heroine of this punchy contemporary crime novel set in the North African community of Paris. She’s bilingual, a good listener, and probably really sick of your sh*t.

Working for the Ministry of Justice as a translator isn’t the job of Patience’s dreams. Her specialty is translating wiretap recordings, mostly conversations between drug dealers — from Arabic to French. As time passes, she’s no longer sure that her sympathies lie with the police. Hours of the suspects’ conversations have humanized them in her ears — and she knows what it’s like to be in tight spots. Which leads Patience to make a shocking, life-changing decision.

Written like a memoir, this novel is cinematic and darkly comic without being cynical. An astute and entertaining look at life in modern Paris. It may be the City of Lights, but bright lights also cast dark shadows, especially for women of a certain age and citizens from somewhere else. {more}

I had been planning to get rid of that revolver – not only because I find weapons hideously ugly, but because this particular one had killed people whose bodies had been buried on The Estate. After all, if one day somebody stumbled upon those remains, it would inevitably lead back to me; and then if they were to find the weapon that had been used to bump off all those people, I would find myself having to offer all sorts of exhausting explanations. But getting rid of a gun is the sort of job you never get around to doing, always putting it off to tomorrow. — Hannelore Cayre

Top image courtesy of Antonio Magrì/Unsplash.

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