You’ve probably read short stories and children’s books while learning French. Now, you feel ready to take the next step, reading a French book for adults. But where to start?
Here’s a list of some classic French books, as well as some popular, more recent ones, to inspire you!
A few quick notes on the book choices
If this article were a complete list of EVERY French book worth reading, it would be as long as a novel itself. Striving for the most variety possible for a relatively short list, I’ve chosen these books based on criteria like their cultural impact, entertainment value, and being relatively easy to read.
That said, reading a book in French will probably still be challenging, especially if you haven’t had much practice. So be sure to have a French dictionary or dictionary app at the ready – and don’t get discouraged! Instead, enjoy the awesome combination of learning and entertainment that is reading in French.
With a few exceptions, all of these writers are French-born, not from the greater Francophone world. We’ll publish another article dedicated to writers from other Francophone countries and cultures soon.
Where to buy French books online?
There are lots of retailers to choose from if you want to buy French books online, including:
- Bookshop (US, UK) – My favorite option
- Barnes & Noble (US)
- Waterstones (UK)
If you find reading French books difficult, consider getting an e-reader with integrated dictionary such as the Amazon Kindle.
Classic French books
There are many classics of French literature, and many of these are internationally known. Here, in no particular order, are some that should be relatively easy to read as well as extremely entertaining:
Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo) by Alexandre Dumas
When Edmond Dantès is framed by jealous rivals, he could just rot away in prison. Instead, he ends up on an adventure that will lead to revenge and redemption.
You can read it for free but there is also a print version available if you prefer physical books.
Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Delight or The Ladies’ Paradise) by Émile Zola
I think Zola is one of the greatest writers to ever live. He can describe anything so vividly that you can see, feel, and taste it, but his language rarely gets too complicated and his descriptions aren’t pages long, which also makes him an easy read for non-native speakers. Zola’s long series of books, Les Rougon-Macquart, follows two branches of a family through various experiences over the course of the Second Empire (1852-1870). You don’t have to read them in order, since most of the books work as stand-alone works.
Though his descriptions are vivid and often beautiful, Zola’s stories can often be harsh. Au bonheur des dames is a good place to start because it’s on the lighter side. It tells the story of Denise Baudu, a woman from the country who comes to work at Au bonheur des dames, one of Paris’s first department stores. Along with readers, she discovers the complex workings of the store, sees how this new type of shopping affects small businesses and the families who ran them, and finds friends and maybe love.
Read Au bonheur des dames for free
La gloire de mon père (My Father’s Glory) by Marcel Pagnol
Marcel Pagnol is THE iconic writer from the South of France. Many of his books are classics, but La gloire de mon père is especially beloved. This autobiographical novel tells the story of Pagnol’s early years and adventures in and around Marseille.
Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The story of a lost explorer and a prince from another planet may be a good classic French book to start with, as it’s full of illustrations and easy-to-understand phrases. That doesn’t make the story any less profound, however. There’s a reason Le Petit Prince is one of the most popular French classics in countries around the world!
Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) by Victor Hugo
Written in 1831, Notre-Dame de Paris tells the story of hunchback Quasimodo, oppressed and oppressive priest Frollo, and free-spirited and seductive Esmeralda, among many other fascinating characters. Set in a vision of medieval Paris, part of the book’s goal was to make people appreciate the cathedral of Notre-Dame itself, at a time when Gothic art wasn’t considered of particular value and the church was falling to ruin. Shortly after, it would be restored and beloved again.
While it’s been a well-known classic in France for centuries, after the devastating 2019 Notre-Dame fire, this book appeared on the national bestseller list again, showing just how much Hugo’s wish had come true: we love Notre-Dame so much today that we want to memorialize and celebrate it.
Read Notre-Dame de Paris for free
Les Contes des fées (Fairy Tales) by Madame d’Aulnoy
In 17th century France, a trend began of writing down or inventing fairy tales. Many women writers participated, often using the stories to question or subvert social rules of the time. Madame d’Aulnoy, who’s credited with coining the term “fairy tale” (un conte de fées in French) is among the most popular of these authors.
Her many interesting and imaginative tales include the original “Beauty and the Beast”, a novella that involves the story we know today as well as things like fairy plots, marriage contestation, and so on. Despite their age, d’Aulnoy’s stories are relatively easy to understand and read – not to mention fun and full of imagination.
Read Les Contes des fées for free
La peste (The Plague) by Albert Camus
The story of a mysterious, deadly (fictional) plague that comes to the city of Oran in Algeria, this book is seen as an allegory of Nazism. It’s an important work that’s worth a read.
Les malheurs de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes) by la Comtesse de Ségur
This famous middle grade novel is somewhat comparable to Little Women in terms of its influence in France, although, to me at least, it’s nowhere near as nuanced. It tells the story of Sophie, a wealthy girl growing up in Second Empire (1852-1870) France, who often misbehaves.
It’s a relatively easy read and definitely has a certain charm, although it’s more of a morality tale than a portrait of a young woman.
Read Les malheurs de Sophie for free
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Gorgeous writing meets a devastating psychological portrait, as we follow Emma Bovary through a dull marriage and its consequences. Even if you’re not into this kind of drama, it’s a book still very much worth reading for Flaubert’s skill at characterization and his beautiful prose.
The Jules Maigret series by Georges Simenon
It’s hard to choose just one of these classic detective novels. Published between 1931 and 1972, Inspector Maigret’s investigations are compelling and easy to read, and are classics of French crime literature.
This helpful Wikipedia page includes a full list of the Maigret series, including 75 novels and 28 short stories. Choose the one(s) you want to read and ask for it/them at your library, local bookstore, or search for it/them at your preferred online bookseller.
L’écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream or Mood Indigo) by Boris Vian
This is the strangest and possibly most challenging book on our list, simply because of that strangeness. Bizarre descriptions and unexpected turns abound. But it’s an amazing reading experience, one of my favorite classic French books, not to mention a favorite of many of my French friends.
The story of young lovers Chuck and Chloe and their merry entourage, it begins as a joyful tale and ends up a surprisingly profound meditation on illness and loss. All with a Surrealist-infused bent that means you’ll constantly be surprised by descriptions of the world the characters live in, where whimsical inventions, talking mice, and a dangerous water lily are a part of everyday life. Ask for it at your library, local bookstore, or search for it at your preferred online bookseller.
Popular French books
On lists of countries that love to read, France regularly places in in the top ten. In addition to the classics in the previous section, the French have eclectic reading interests, poring over books translated from languages around the world as well as works written by French authors.
Here are some popular contemporary French books you might enjoy. Ask for them at your library, local bookstore, or search for them at your preferred online bookseller.
Central Park by Guillaume Musso
Musso is currently the top-selling French writer in France today. His books are thrillers, sometimes with a supernatural element. Many feature children in sort of sad ways; for instance, his first novel, Et après…, follows a child who was clinically dead and came back to life, as he learns more about this experience as an adult, with the help of a mysterious doctor.
The book I’ve chosen for our list, Central Park, is about a man and a woman who wake up handcuffed together on a bench in Central Park…despite the fact that both are from different countries in Europe and neither one knows how they got there.
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Et si c’était vrai… by Marc Levy
A woman in a coma “haunts” the man now living in her home. Sound familiar? That’s because this novel was adapted into the movie “Just Like Heaven”, starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo. Levy’s books are often romantic and lighthearted, though they may touch on heavy themes. His style is also generally very easy to read.
Ensemble, c’est tout by Anna Gavalda
This book is about a group of misfits who come together under particular circumstances to live in an apartment, and the connections they make with each other. There’s friendship, romance, and overcoming difficult pasts. Like many of Gavalda’s books, this one is tinged with sadness but also filled with hope and love.
Le premier jour du reste de ma vie by Virginie Grimaldi
One of the most upbeat mainstream writers in France, Grimaldi is known for writing in the “chick-lit” genre. This particular book tells the story of Marie, who leaves behind her unhappy life and takes a cruise around the world, bonding with two other women and having adventures along the way.
L’égoïste romantique by Frédéric Beigbeder
An infamous partier and bon vivant (he was notoriously arrested in 2008 for snorting cocaine off a car hood in the middle of Paris), Beigbeder might be seen as a bit controversial for many people, including fellow feminists. But he is an AMAZING writer, funny and touching, profound and hilarious.
L’égoïste romantique is the first book I read by Beigbeder, and I felt as though I were reading a modern-day, Francophone Oscar Wilde. So much wit and wisdom. To show his range, another of Beigbeder’s books, Windows on the World, is a much more sober story about a family in the eponymous restaurant on top of the North Tower of the Twin Towers, and the author eating a meal at the same time at a restaurant on top of Paris’s Tour Montparnasse, on 9/11.
Stupeur et tremblements by Amélie Nothomb
Most of the other writers on this list are native French citizens, but Nothomb hails from Belgium and spent the first years of her life in Japan, where her father was the Belgian Ambassador. Still, she’s such an iconic and prolific part of the contemporary French literary scene that it would be strange not to include her on this list. Plus, her books are short, strange, and easy to read.
In Stupeur et tremblements, possibly her most famous book, Nothomb (or a fictionalized version of her) returns to Japan as an adult, to work at a company there. She quickly experiences everything from culture shock to a sort of obsession with a coworker. It’s weird, yet relatable and, funny, yet sad, as the best of Nothomb’s writing is.
Dans les forêts de Siberie by Sylvain Tesson
Travel writer Tesson does his version of Thoreau, by deciding to live alone in a cabin…but in his case, it’s in Siberia, on Lake Baikal. Unlike Walden, Tesson’s book describes encounters with locals in addition to nature and his own thoughts. It’s a fascinating book that’s extremely engaging and will make you feel the cold of Siberia, wherever you’re reading it.
Kiffe Kiffe demain by Faïza Guène
This is one of my all-time favorite French books, for what it’s worth. We follow Doria, a French teenager of North African descent living in a banlieue (housing project) near Paris. Told with humor, even when touching on sad subjects like abandonment, struggling in school, and poverty, this book is a delight and a true masterpiece of characterization. No wonder it’s won awards and been translated into several different languages.
If you’re looking for insight into life in the French banlieues – especially what it’s like to grow up there – this is a great place to start. But even if that’s not your main interest, I would still recommend this book for its skillful and engaging writing.
Les fiancés de l’hiver by Christelle Dabos
This fantasy book is the first in the four-part Passe-Miroir (Mirror Visitor) series, which has become an international sensation. Fun world-building, humor, suspense, and romance abound.
In this first volume, the world is divided into many small islands, called arks. Ophélie lives on a peaceful ark where she works at a museum, using her gift of touching objects to understand their past. When she’s placed in an arranged marriage to the mysterious Thorn, she must travel to his ark, a brutal world of hunters and courtiers – think Versailles meets Vikings. Will she survive and unravel the many mysteries that surround her? This book is long, but despite its length, it’s a pretty easy read in French.
La mécanique du cœur by Mathias Malzieu
This novel by Malzieu, who’s also the frontman of the French rock band Dionysos, is a fantasy story about love, featuring Jack, a young man with a cuckoo clock heart. What happens when he falls in love? As you might know if you’ve seen the book’s movie adaptation or even its artwork, this story gives off major Tim Burton/Goth vibes. It’s a quick, fun, and moving read.
Les Escaliers de Montmartre by Michel Peyramaure
Peyramaure isn’t as popular as the other authors on this list, but I really wanted to add him because his historical fiction novels about France are compelling and relatively easy reads. My personal favorite is Les Escaliers de Montmartre, which covers the early life of Suzanne Valadon, artist, muse, and mother of the painter Utrillo. Surrounded by legendary Parisian artists of the Belle-Époque, her life and times were stunning, sensuous, and sorrowful.
French nonfiction books
It’s hard to make a list of any kind of French books, since there will always be something you end up leaving out, for one reason or another. A list of French nonfiction books would be even harder, since there are books out there on just about any topic under the sun, and not everyone has the same interests.
So I won’t include any French nonfiction books here. But I do advise you to read French nonfiction books about topics that interest you. These don’t have to be things specific to France or French culture, of course; you’ll still get lots of vocabulary and reading practice regardless of what you’re reading in French.
Plus, many (although not all) French nonfiction books will also be written in an easier style than fiction books or poetry, so they can be a good way to start reading longer texts in French.
To find the perfect French nonfiction book for you, start by doing an internet search for the subject that interests you (in French, of course) and the word livre.
Where can I find more French reading recommendations?
If you’re looking for even more ways to read in French, I’d suggest taking a look at our list of French stories and fairy tales. Many of these are also classics in the French canon and will often be referenced in French popular culture.
Do internet searches for specific authors, titles, subjects, and genres in French. And of course, a general search for something like “livres polars en français” (thrillers in French) should also yield some results.
Additionally, you can look for subjects like “bestsellers en France” or “auteurs français”. The homepages of French and Francophone websites that sell books can also be a good way to find a new read; many display covers of recent releases.
You can also check your local library to see if they have any French books in their collection. Some larger libraries probably will, or will have bilingual classics.
If you’re on a budget, keep in mind that most books published before 1923 are in the public domain, and you may be able to find them for free online at sites like Gallica.fr or Wikisource. You can often find links to these free versions at the end of Wikipedia entries in French or in English.
How easy is it to read books in French?
If you’re wondering how easy it is to read a book in French, unfortunately there’s no easy answer for that. For one thing, every author has a particular style, and in some cases, even if they don’t use arcane vocabulary or complex grammatical structures, their writing just may be hard for you to understand.This is the same case when reading in one’s native language. Some writers’ works “speak” to us more clearly than others’.
Reading in French will have its challenges, regardless. It’s always a good idea to keep a dictionary or dictionary app open. But just like anything else, over time it will get easier. The more you read, the more vocabulary you gain, the more you get used to seeing different grammatical structures and expressions, and the more natural it all feels.
Ultimately, remember that you will get used to reading in French. There will probably always be some challenges, because even native speakers might find a particular author difficult to understand, after all. But you will get better and better at it. And if you pick books that interest you, at least you’ll be entertained as you learn and practice. That’s the best thing about reading in French.
Do you have a favorite French book or French author? Have you read any of the books on this list? If you did, what did you think of them? Feel free to share in the comments!