The Ultimate Guide to Reading Your Way Through Paris in 15 Books

April 3 2018

I’m a New Yorker through and through, but there’s just something about Paris that makes me consider cheating on my home city. Maybe it’s the food, the architecture, the history, the romance. Okay, fine, maybe it’s all of those things. But more than anything, it’s the way you can read your way through the side streets and iconic attractions. When I was there last fall, there were countless opportunities to get lost in the stories of the city. Here are the books—fiction and nonfiction—I brought with me (with photographic evidence!), plus a few extra titles to try for your next travel itinerary.


Flâneuse
by Lauren Elkin

If there’s one thing you should know when packing for a trip to Paris, it’s that you should bring a pair of comfortable shoes. While the Metro and bus systems are great, the best way to see the city is to experience it on foot. Lauren Elkin takes the idea of the “flâneur,” the wealthy male intellectual who spends his days wandering around the world’s capitals, and makes it feminine. She reflects on the relationship between women (including Virginia Woolf, Patti Smith, Martha Gellhorn, and George Sand) and their surroundings in this fascinating combination of memoir and cultural history.

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Flâneuse
Lauren Elkin

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The Room on Rue Amélie
by Kristin Harmel

Kristin Harmel’s rich and emotional novel follows three characters—Ruby, a newlywed who arrives in the city just as the Nazis are about to invade; Charlotte, a young Jewish girl who watches her life fall apart when the deportations begin; and Thomas, a British Royal Air Force pilot who finds himself forever changed by what he encounters in the City of Light—as fate brings them together under the shadow of the occupation. Together, they must learn to survive, and open themselves to the possibility of a future. If you liked THE NIGHTINGALE or ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE, this would be a great next read.

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The Room on Rue Amélie
Kristin Harmel

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Paris
by Edward Rutherfurd

Perfect for your long flight to Paris, Edward Rutherfurd’s novel is a big one, but a total page-turner. Like his earlier city-based books (which I highly recommend), PARIS centers around various families in different class situations throughout many generations. As they encounter influential figures, major events, and one another, we watch them grow and evolve alongside the city they call home. You’ll get a great introduction to the layout, both historical and geographical, of the City of Light.

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Paris
Edward Rutherfurd

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery

Whether you’re staying in an Airbnb or the Ritz, you’ll enjoy this charming novel about the lives of the residents of a Parisian hôtel particulier (a privately owned townhouse with a number of apartments): Renée, the building’s concierge, and Paloma, the daughter of the Josses, who live on the fifth floor. Both are underestimated and underappreciated, but in each other they find a kindred spirit and opportunity to reveal their true talents and best qualities.

Read the full review of THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery

“The novel contains all the hallmarks of a modern French classic: quirky characters prone to fatalistic philosophical musings, action set against the florid backdrop of a ritzy hôtel particulier in bourgeois Paris, vivid voyeuristic depictions of the residents’ interior lives—and just a touch of playful pretention.”

Read the full review by Hilary Krutt here.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
by Victor Hugo

The towering Notre-Dame is one of Paris’s most popular attractions, and that’s thanks, in no small part, to Victor Hugo’s 1831 masterpiece (originally titled NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS). Fair warning: this is not Walt Disney’s Quasimodo. Hugo’s HUNCHBACK is a darker story, but the romance and drama that unfolds between Quasimodo, Esmerelda, and Claude Frollo makes it a must-read, especially if you take a break to read in the gardens behind the cathedral.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Victor Hugo

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Sarah’s Key
by Tatiana de Rosnay

Paris has faced many dark days, but life during World War II is still one of the most impactful and significantly felt periods in the city’s history. This powerful novel not only explores the human cost of that time, but also reveals the effect time can have on memory and national conscience. It follows a journalist named Julia whose assignment to report on the sixtieth anniversary of Vel’ d’Hiv, a day in 1942 when Jews across Paris were arrested, leads her to discover the mystery of a young girl and her brother that will change her life forever.

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Sarah’s Key
Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah and her family were brutally arrested by the French police in the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment. As the sixtieth anniversary approaches, a journalist finds herself compelled to retrace Sarah’s ordeal, from the terrible days in the Vel’ d’Hiv to the camps and beyond, and stumbles upon a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah.

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Giovanni's Room
by James Baldwin

American writer James Baldwin left his home country in the 1950s for Paris, where he was inspired to write his classic novel following the life and loves of a young man named David. Considered one of the most influential novels of our time, it touches upon themes of homosexuality, belonging, desire, violence, home, and the complexities of the human heart. It’s the perfect book to keep you company at the many outdoor cafés.

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Giovanni's Room
James Baldwin

Read a Classic by an Author of Color

Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds himself caught between desire and conventional morality. With a sharp, probing imagination, James Baldwin’s now-classic narrative delves into the mystery of loving and creates a moving, highly controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart.

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Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation
by Noel Riley Fitch

No trip to Paris is complete without visiting the legendary bookstore Shakespeare and Company, which sits on the Left Bank just across the bridge from Notre-Dame. The store honors the legacy of its founder, Sylvia Beach, and the preeminent writers of the twentieth century—Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Eliot, and others—that she called her friends. Noel Riley Fitch’s history of that group, the Lost Generation, is full of incredible anecdotes and is a must-read for any literary history fan. Pro tip: flip through it as you sit in one of the slouchy leather chairs on the second floor of the store.

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Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation
Noel Riley Fitch

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Parisians
by Graham Robb

Paris has given birth to many famous names and places, but rarely do the stories about them feature the city as a character. Graham Robb does, and the result is a much more intimate history of Paris at its seminal moments. You’ll find Napoleon at Palais-Royal, Marie-Antoinette on the Left Bank, the real-life Mimi of La Bohéme, Proust, Charles de Gaulle, and more as the book travels from the catacombs to the Seine, the back streets to the suburbs.

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Parisians
Graham Robb

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Le Divorce
by Diane Johnson

This contemporary comedy of manners is part Jane Austen, part Henry James, centered around Isabel Walker, an American who lands in France to visit her stepsister, Roxy, whose marriage to an aristocratic painter is crumbling. Together, the women embark on a smart and hilarious journey through the upper crust of Parisian society that takes us through parks, penthouses, and galleries as they try to figure out what to do next.

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Le Divorce
Diane Johnson

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Paris: A Love Story
by Kati Marton

At every stage of her life, Kati Marton found beauty and excitement in Paris: as a journalist, as a traveler, as a young woman falling in love, and then as a grown woman finding love again. But after the sudden death of her second husband, she realized she could find the one thing she needed most: a new beginning. This is a nuanced, romantic, and candid portrait of Paris that makes it much more than just a tourist destination.

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Paris: A Love Story
Kati Marton

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The Greater Journey
by David McCullough

The Lost Generation might be the better-known group of Americans in Paris, but before they arrived in the 1920s, there was already a growing population of expats living and making art in the City of Light. Between 1830 and 1900, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Sumner, Elizabeth Blackwell, and other artists, politicians, doctors, and writers filled the cafés, studios, and universities. With his trademark eye for detail and storytelling, David McCullough gives their experiences new life—and gives you some new heroes.

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The Greater Journey
David McCullough

Between 1830 and 1900, hundreds of Americans—including Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—traveled to Paris, and their experience abroad dramatically shaped them in ways that would later affect their contributions to art, medicine, politics, and more upon their return to the United States.

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Paris: The Biography of a City
by Colin James

Paris is nearly 2,000 years old, so any book covering its entire history effectively must be that many pages, right? Wrong! Colin Jones’s masterpiece is nearly 500 pages but still packs in stories from the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages to the court of Versailles, Lost Generation, German occupation, student uprisings of the 1960s, and current climate in a page-turning and fascinating narrative history. It’s the best way to recap everything you’ve seen.

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Paris: The Biography of a City
Colin James

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How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are
by Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline de Maigret, and Sophie Mas

This fresh and entertaining guide to incorporating Paris into your everyday life is the perfect read once vacation withdrawal starts to kick in. If anything, this is a reminder that it’s not just a place: it’s an attitude and a way of life that you can take with you anywhere. The authors present the Parisian twist on everything—from style and sex to food, beauty, and culture—and offer practical advice and suggestions that you can use during your next visit to the City of Light.

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How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are
Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline de Maigret, and Sophie Mas

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The Light of Paris
by Eleanor Brown

In Madeleine’s memories, her grandmother Margie is the kind of woman she wishes she could be—elegant, reserved, and poised. But when Madeleine, who is struggling to find herself in the midst of a messy divorce, finds a diary that reveals an unexpected trip Margie took to Paris in the 1920s, she discovers that the woman she thought she knew was so much more. Eleanor Brown’s narrative switches back and forth between these two women in search of a bold, brave, exciting life, and touches on the ways Paris has captivated our imaginations in the past and present. It’s the perfect armchair adventure through the cafés and studios of the Jazz Age.

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The Light of Paris
Eleanor Brown

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