The 16 Best French Books to Read in 2020

It’s all well and good to read all those everyday conversations from your French courseMarie et Jeanne sont au café; Où est la gare ? – but the more time you spend learning French, the more you’ll be craving something meatier to sink your teeth into… like a good book.

If reading in French makes you a bit hesitant, don’t worry: you’re not alone.

I know many people who purchased piles of French books and put them dutifully on their shelves… where they ended up gathering dust for years, just because cracking the spine seemed too scary.

But the truth is, reading in French is one of the best ways to improve your grasp and comprehension of the language, and it’s not as difficult as it might seem, provided you have the right tools at your disposal.

5 Tips and Tricks for Reading in French

French books

1. Read Books You Know

If reading in French is a bit daunting, why not start with a book you know well?

You can pick up the Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Twilight books in translation easily, and since you already know the story, you’ll be able to follow along even when you stumble upon an unfamiliar word.

2. Read Books for Kids

When I was first learning French, I stocked up on Astérix and Obélix comics. These hardcover comic books tell the story of a small village of proto-French Gauls fighting off Roman legionaries thanks to a magic potion made by their local druid that gives them superhuman strength.

Enjoyed by kids and adults alike in France, these books have the added benefit of being illustrated, making them easy to follow.

3. Choose Annotated Classics

Many classics of French literature are available in annotated form.

These books are often abridged versions of the heftier full versions of the novels and offer footnotes explaining rare or antiquated vocabulary words.

They can be a great guidepost in delving into 19th century French masters like Victor Hugo or Gustave Flaubert.

4. Read with Sticky Notes

sticky notes

One of the most annoying things about reading in French is that you’re constantly reaching for the dictionary, thus disrupting the narrative flow.

Instead, try purchasing some flag notes and indicating words that you don’t quite understand.

Usually, you can get the gist from context and continue reading, and then you can go back after you’ve finished the chapter and look up the word, thus adding it to your vocabulary arsenal.

5. Make reading French books a Habit

A whole book seems daunting, but what about a chapter, or even just five pages?

Commit to taking small bites out of your French books by planning to read two pages a night, a chapter a week, or twenty minutes a day – whatever works for you.

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of reading in French, you’ll see how easy it will become!

As for what books to read, well that’s entirely up to you!

You’re far more likely to get something out of reading in French if you enjoy what you’re reading.

With that in mind, here are a few great suggestions that are ideal for French learners.

The best books for French learners and francophiles

L’Étranger, Albert Camus

This classic of French literature is on many lists of must-read books for French learners; the reasons why are innumerable.

I believe that it’s in large part thanks to the voice of the narrator, which is simplistic and straightforward (a character choice that nevertheless makes this book fairly easy to read).

But behind the simplistic narration, this novel delves into the ideology of existentialism so popular in France in the 50s and 60s, and it also offers a portrait of Camus’ background living as a pied-noir resident of French colonial Algeria.

Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This childhood classic is the perfect foray into French literature for beginning readers of French (though there are definitely easier children’s books to read).

The simple yet poignant story is accompanied by illustrations, making it even easier to understand.

The message, of course, is one that transcends ages and cultures.

L’Enfant Noir, Camara Laye

This autobiographical novel tells the story of author Camara Laye’s childhood growing up in Guinea.

The child narrator uses relatively simple language to delve into complex concepts including the place of African women in society and the perceived power of a French education.

While heavily criticized for painting colonized Africa as a relatively peaceful place devoid of violence, the novel is nonetheless recognized as one of the earliest major works in Francophone African literature and won the Prix Charles Veillon in 1954.

Entre les Murs, François Bégaudeau

school children

This modern classic is a semi-autobiographical account of teaching at one of Paris’ inner city schools.

The repetitive nature of the book is a stylistic choice that shows the tedium of the days (and also hints at small but meaningful changes in the behavior of the narrator’s students), making it a relatively easy read.

It also includes several references to modern slang and idioms to add to your more standard vocabulary arsenal. The film adaptation of this book received the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

La Mécanique du Coeur, Mathias Malzieu

The author of this modern Gothic romance is the lead singer of French rock band Dionysos, who also recorded a concept album based on the story.

The book follows the life of Little Jack, born on the coldest day ever in Edinburgh.

The freezing temperatures cause his heart to be frozen solid, requiring a replacement, which is crafted out of a cuckoo clock by local witch doctor Madeleine.

Madeleine becomes Little Jack’s adoptive mother, attempting to keep him and his fragile heart safe from the dangers of anger and love.

Nonetheless, Little Jack does fall in love with a little singer girl, and he goes off in pursuit of her across Europe.

La Maison de Claudine, Colette

This collection of vignettes illustrates Colette’s childhood in the early 20th century in rural France.

The stand-alone nature of each of the individual vignettes makes this a great book to read when committing to a full novel seems a bit overwhelming.

La Gloire de Mon Père, Marcel Pagnol

Marseille

This love letter to southern France explores Pagnol’s own childhood, specifically a summer when his family and that of his mother’s sister rented a home in the French countryside.

Young Marcel’s discovery of southern France will transport you to the rolling hills and hidden caves of the rural landscape.

Candide, Voltaire

This satire written by philosopher Voltaire in the 18th century is just as poignant today:

Candide has been raised to be an eternal optimist by his mentor, Professor Pangloss, until one day he receives a rude awakening and slowly becomes aware of the hardships and struggle around the world.

The fantastical plot takes the reader on a fast-paced journey, all the while serving as a jumping-off point for Voltaire’s own philosophies, which ridicule religion, governments, and blind optimism in general.

Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo is one of the most popular French novelists of all time, and his Notre Dame de Paris is a great place to start.

This novel delves into the microcosm of the Parisian Notre Dame Cathedral in the Middle Ages, featuring the gypsy Esmeralda, the National Guard Captain Phoebus, and the hunchback, Quasimodo, amongst other colorful characters.

While the ending will likely surprise those familiar with the Disney version, the general themes of this novel tend to be familiar enough for even beginner readers to get a grasp of Hugo’s message.

L’Élégance du Hérisson, Muriel Barbery

Published in 2006, this novel follows the events of the life of a Parisian concierge (similar to a superintendent), Renée Michel.

The story uses the structure of a Parisian apartment building and the implicit juxtaposition of the private and public spheres to explore Renée’s life, particularly as seen by a precocious upper class resident of the building, a young girl named Paloma Josse.

Soumission, Michel Houellebecq

Soumission was almost eerily released on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris and quickly became a sensation.

This dystopian novel explores a France in which a Muslim president is elected.

It is French political satire, commentary, and criticism at its finest, and while it’s sure to make more than a few people uncomfortable with its blatant lack of political correctness, it’s definitely an interesting look at the French political landscape today.

Stupeur et Tremblements, Amélie Nothomb

Amélie Nothomb is an almost uncannily prolific writer of Belgian origin; of her over one dozen published works, Stupeur et Tremblements is one of the best.

Like most of her works, this novel falls into the category of autofiction, following Amélie’s life working and living in Japan.

The narrator becomes more and more frustrated with her life and job, but she opts to fulfill the entire year of her contract in order to save face and retain her honor – an interesting exploration and commentary on Japanese culture.

Le Ventre de l’Atlantique, Fatou Diome

This autobiographical novel explores the experiences of Senegalese writer Fatou Diome.

The narrator is living in Strasbourg and maintains a tenuous grasp on her roots and old life in Senegal, where her family still lives.

The book travels back and forth between he two countries, situating the narrator in the uncomfortable place somewhere between her old life in Senegal, the dreamlike utopia that her family imagines of her new life in France, and the reality of living between two cultures.

Le Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac was one of the most prolific writers in French history, publishing nearly 100 novels, plays, and short stories in his lifetime, all of which were part of a vast Comédie Humaine or Human Comedy.

In this world of his own making, individual characters from one novel appear in the background of others, thus creating an entire self-sustaining world where his works take place.

Working in the early 19th century, Balzac explores post-Revolutionary French society, particularly as the government evolves and changes from an Empire to a Republic and back again.

This book, one of the most famous of the Comédie Humaine, delves into the unconditional love of a father, the eponymous Goriot, who ruins himself in order to please his two daughters, neither of whom have much of a thought for their father save for his rapidly depleting fortune.

Les Fleurs du Mal, Charles Baudelaire

The still-reigning king of French prose-poetry, Baudelaire evokes the symbolist and modern movements in his Fleurs du Mal.

The poems in the book are organized according to six categories: Spleen and Ideal, Parisian Scenes, Wine, Flowers of Evil, Revolt, and Death.

This book is ideal for those who only have time for a taste of French literature, as each poem is no more than a page or two long.

Zazie dans le Métro, Raymond Queneau

This classic from 1959 follows preteen Zazie as she spends two days exploring the city of Paris on her own.

The book is known for its use of colloquial language, often writing out whole sentences as one, phonetically transcribed word. One oft-cited example is the first word of the book – Doukipudonktan – a phonetic transcription of D’où qu’il pue donc tant ? (Who stinks so badly?)

You may have to read some of these phrases out loud to catch their drift, but that’s half the fun.

Of course, this list is just a jumping-off point. From here, there’s a whole world of French literature to discover!

And you, what are your favorite French books?

5 thoughts on “The 16 Best French Books to Read in 2020”

  1. Prosper Mérimée, author of the novella Carmen (on which the famous opera was based), was a beautiful writer who did not lard his works with obscure, redundant words or overly clever turns of phrase, and the stories he told were engrossing. I found his writing a pleasure to read, not a chore.

    Balzac, in contrast… Let’s just say that I recall a one-and-half-page passage devoted entirely to describing the entryway to a private courtyard, and having to reach for my French and French-English dictionaries every third word. (I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Was he paid by the word? Did he subscribe to the “use ’em or lose ’em” theory of obscure-word deployment? Both, I suspect.) I haven’t read Le Père Goriot, but if it’s not significantly easier to read than his other works, it probably belongs at the very end of this list, if it belongs at all. I’d guess that anyone who can read Balzac for pleasure no longer needs to “learn French together.”

    Candide is splendid, but fair warning: it contains a good hundred-plus archaic or obsolete words whose English translations you will never have heard of either. (These mostly pertain to old coins or currencies, administrative ranks within the Ottoman empire, and the like.) It’s still worth the read. And when you’ve finished, you can ask yourself the same question I did: Was Voltaire genuinely suggesting that the route to peace and happiness in a tumultuous, unjust world was to “cultivate one’s own garden”? Or, having already suffered imprisonment and exile for being too explicitly critical of (monarchical) government, was he being politic and inviting readers to read between the lines? My money’s on the latter.

    Guy de Maupassant isn’t too hard to read. His characters are well developed and his stories are interesting enough, but I found a lot of them to be “realistic” to the point of being cynical and depressing. And say what you will, the man did *not* like Prussians (or other Germans, for that matter). Not surprising, I suppose, after France got its clock cleaned in the Franco-Prussian War, lost Alsace-Lorraine, and was required to pay huge reparations. (And for history buffs, French resentment over huge reparations led to huge reparations being imposed on Germany after World War I, which led to German resentment, which led to you know what. In hindsight, it looks very much like it was France’s Napoléon III, responding preemptively to what he perceived as a strategic threat from Germany in the north and a German-allied Spain in the south, was the prime instigator of the Franco-Prussian War. So, if you’re looking for a single scapegoat to pin the horrors of World Wars I and II on, Napoléon III might be a good place to start.)

    I learned most of my proper written French — spelling, grammar, vocabulary, turns of phrase — by reading Le Monde, back when it was a world-class paper owned and managed by its writers and editors. Le Monde seemed to be as serious about proper use of French as the New Yorker was about English. (I can’t vouch for the paper’s quality today. Half of the online comments are depressingly illiterate. That’s a reflection on the readership, not the paper itself, but still…)

    I learned a lot of my *improper* French from Charlie Hebdo (well before the recent troubles) and from the San Antonio series of pulp novels by Frédéric Dard. Charlie was frequently “in bad taste” by typical American or British standards, but even its street French was carefully curated, copyedited, and proofed. San Antonio is marred by undertones of sexism, racism, and chauvinism typical of the time it was written — not necessarily mean-spirited, but there nonetheless — but excerpts have been included in the French baccalaureate curriculum for French language from time to time. I’m pretty sure Dard just made up some of the slang, but much of it he did not. And some of it is out of date today, but again, much of it is not. At any rate, I learned a lot of French words and expressions from “San A.”

    Finally, although my French was probably better than my native American English by the time I left France, the puns, spoonerisms, and other plays on words in Le Canard enchaîné (a satirical political newspaper that did serious investigative reporting) were frequently over my head. Still, I do remember a line to the effect that Charles Royer, a notorious prig who was mayor of Tours and who proposed requiring women to wear bras, “n’aimaient pas les points qui suintent.” I got that one.

    Reply
  2. Prosper Mérimée, author of the novella Carmen (on which the famous opera was based), was a beautiful writer who did not lard his works with obscure, redundant words or overly clever turns of phrase, and the stories he told were engrossing. I found his writing a pleasure to read, not a chore.

    Balzac, in contrast… Let’s just say that I recall a one-and-half-page passage devoted entirely to describing the entryway to a private courtyard, and having to reach for my French and French-English dictionaries every third word. (I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Was he paid by the word? Did he subscribe to the “use ’em or lose ’em” theory of obscure-word deployment? Both, I suspect.) I haven’t read Le Père Goriot, but if it’s not significantly easier to read than his other works, it probably belongs at the very end of this list, if it belongs at all. I’d guess that anyone who can read Balzac for pleasure no longer needs to “learn French together.”

    Candide is splendid, but fair warning: it contains a good hundred-plus archaic or obsolete words whose English translations you will never have heard of either. (These mostly pertain to old coins or currencies, administrative ranks within the Ottoman empire, and the like.) It’s still worth the read. And when you’ve finished, you can ask yourself the same question I did: Was Voltaire genuinely suggesting that the route to peace and happiness in a tumultuous, unjust world was to “cultivate one’s own garden”? Or, having already suffered imprisonment and exile for being too explicitly critical of (monarchical) government, was he being politic and inviting readers to read between the lines? My money’s on the latter.

    Guy de Maupassant isn’t too hard to read. His characters are well developed and his stories are interesting enough, but I found a lot of them to be “realistic” to the point of being cynical and depressing. And say what you will, the man did *not* like Prussians (or other Germans, for that matter). Not surprising, I suppose, after France got its clock cleaned in the Franco-Prussian War, lost Alsace-Lorraine, and was required to pay huge reparations. (And for history buffs, French resentment over huge reparations led to huge reparations being imposed on Germany after World War I, which led to German resentment, which led to you know what. In hindsight, it looks very much like it was France’s Napoléon III, responding preemptively to what he perceived as a strategic threat from Germany in the north and a German-allied Spain in the south, was the prime instigator of the Franco-Prussian War. So, if you’re looking for a single scapegoat to pin the horrors of World Wars I and II on, Napoléon III might be a good place to start.)

    I learned most of my proper written French — spelling, grammar, vocabulary, turns of phrase — by reading Le Monde, back when it was a world-class paper owned and managed by its writers and editors. Le Monde seemed to be as serious about proper use of French as the New Yorker was about English. (I can’t vouch for the paper’s quality today. Half of the online comments are depressingly illiterate. That’s a reflection on the readership, not the paper itself, but still…)

    I learned a lot of my *improper* French from Charlie Hebdo (well before the recent troubles) and from the San Antonio series of pulp novels by Frédéric Dard. Charlie was frequently “in bad taste” by typical American or British standards, but even its street French was carefully curated, copyedited, and proofed. San Antonio is marred by undertones of sexism, racism, and chauvinism typical of the time it was written — not necessarily mean-spirited, but there nonetheless — but excerpts have been included in the French baccalaureate curriculum for French language from time to time. I’m pretty sure Dard just made up some of the slang, but much of it he did not. And some of it is out of date today, but again, much of it is not. At any rate, I learned a lot of French words and expressions from “San A.”

    Finally, although my French was probably better than my native American English by the time I left France, the puns, spoonerisms, and other plays on words in Le Canard enchaîné (a satirical political newspaper that did serious investigative reporting) were frequently over my head. Still, I do remember a line to the effect that Charles Royer, a notorious prig who was mayor of Tours and who proposed requiring women to wear bras, “n’aimaient pas les points qui suintent.” I got that one.

    Reply
  3. “Les Jeux Sont Faits” by Jean Paul Sartre is one of the best books to start with as a French learner, as it is written entirely in the present tense. It has a captivating story, broken into manageable small chapters. Some editions come with a French-English dictionary of the vocabulary used in the book.
    This book is often used by high-school and college French courses in the USA for the reasons above, but also because there is not and English version of the book available for students to “cheat” with 🙂

    Reply
  4. May I suggest crime novels? Once you are hooked by the plot you have to keep reading to find out who dunnit. I like Fred Vargas’s novels.

    Reply

Leave a Comment