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Historic Novel of France

Before traveling to Italy, reading "The Agony and The Ecstasy" gave me an excellent insight into history of the country (of course, particularly the art). Before China trip, a book titled "Wild Swans" offered the same excellent history of the country. I would appreciate any suggestions of a historic novel, (as opposed to a history book of France).

ALSO, any suggestions of B & B's, chateaus or castles in Beaune, Provence and Nice... and Paris.

Thank you !

Posted by
4922 posts

If you are going to spend time in Paris, try "Paris: The Novel" by Edward Rutherfurd. TC

Posted by
784 posts

I really enjoyed "The Belly of Paris" by Emile Zola. I found Les Miserables too long and slow to slog through - see the movie instead. I also liked "Confessions of Catherine de Medici," by C. W. Gortner. She was married to Henri II and the novel covers the period of his reign to Henri IV, and the religious wars of the reformation.

Posted by
8119 posts

My husband just finished Paris: The Novel and found it interesting as it is a broad sweep of history of the city -- not great literature, but a good read. It reminded him of the old Mitchner novels.

People often recommend the Cara Black mystery series which is set in various arrondissements of Paris. I took several on a long visit to Paris and found them virtually unreadable as the main character is both unbelievable and annoying. It was fun to have things happening around the corner from one's apartment -- but they were still unreadable IMHO. Many people disagree with me, so you might give one a try.

Posted by
2349 posts

Janet, I'm right with you there on the Cara Black. Poorly written.

Posted by
4684 posts

I hadn't heard of Cara Black, but she probably stole the idea of novels themed around arroundisements from Leo Malet's series of private eye novels featuring Nestor Burma, a few of which have been published in English. They were mostly written in the fifties, so are quite historical now.

Posted by
703 posts

Another vote for the novel Paris. Its a long read but I loved it. Enjoy your trip!

Posted by
20 posts

Another vote for Edward Rutherford's "Paris." An exceptional read.
Also, for a great look into the unique culture of basic Parisians as seen by an American who lived there for a period, read Adam Gopnik's "Paris to the Moon."

Posted by
11507 posts

Paris to the Moon ugh.. one of my least favorites.. his slanted views were stomach turning to me.

If you are interested in going to see Versailles then try Marie Antionette by Antonia Frazer.

If you like modern historical novels ( WWII) "Sarahs Key" also. Actually makes a walk through the Marais and a visit to visit the Shoah Memorial ( its a museum ) much much more meaningful.

I also enjoyed ( so think I third or fourth that recommendation ) "Paris" but did find it a bit sludgy in some parts..

Posted by
1878 posts

Please consider a few of the classics. I have some suggestions that were written a long time ago, but probably fit the definition of an historical novel. Les Miserables is a great book written not too many years after the time that it depicts. The abridged edition is probably the right one to go with. Don't be put off by the fact that they made a musical of it (argh). The Three Musketeers or the Count of Monte Cristo are also worth looking into, although I must admit that I have never made it through either. Also Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, which is a lot shorter than any of the above.

Posted by
5 posts

Thanks to all. Some great suggestions for reading.

ALSO, any suggestions of B & B's, chateaus or castles in Beaune, Aix-Provence and Nice... and a Paris hotel in the Rue Cler section.

Posted by
14580 posts

Historical novel on France...the classic by Stendal, The Red and the Black.

Posted by
8119 posts

IMHO the Rue Cler is not a good choice for a first stay. It is out of the way of most central sights of interest and is filled with American tourists who think it is somehow special. There are market streets all over Paris, many of them more interesting than Rue Cler and all of them containing fewer American tourists.

We stayed at Hotel de la Paix in Beaune and really liked it; it was an easy stroll to the historic center. There is parking although it is tight to get into.

There are numerous chateaux in the Paris area: the Louvre, Vincennes, Versailles, Sceaux, Rambouillet (the summer residence of the President of France, can be toured when he is not in residence and the park is gorgeous), Ecouen (now the Renaissance Museum of France), Vaux le Vicomte (my favorite, you can see snapshots of this , Rambouillet and Ecouen at, Fontainebleau, Malmaison and probably others I have missed.

Posted by
12172 posts

Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo are both much better books than you would think based on the fairly miserable film versions that have been made. I wasn't excited about either book because of the movies. After reading them, I could see how they became classics.

I've read some books by Zola and I think he gives you insight into a different (later) period of time.

My favorite is pretty much anything by Voltaire. I find him readable, interesting and witty. You can pick up a single volume collection of Candide, short stories, and essays for cheap on Amazon.

Posted by
43 posts

Hi geagle2

I like your question and agree that its great to get a "feel" for a country by reading such novels.

I'm interested to see what people on the forum come up with. I know France like the back of my hand and have read many books around the subject, but would like to latch on to one which is "general" historical novel.

Anyway, a few suggestions: Joanne Harris does a good line in easy to read historical novels such as Five quarters of an orange and Chocolate (good film). Labyrinth by Kate Moss is good. Peter Mayle - A Year in Provence. On the heavy end I absolutely loved Charles Dickens Tale of Two cities. I haven't read the book but saw the film of it, Perfume by Patrick Suskind is a very disturbing but fascinating insight into the aroma side of things in France, it features Grasse. The real master is Marcel Pagnol with novels Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Classics include Emile Zola - La Bete Humaine and Victor Hugo - Les Miserables.



Posted by
10254 posts

Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London." You'll never look at life in early 20th C. Paris and London (and fine dining) in the same way again.

Posted by
3610 posts

The Dream of Scipio. Set in and around Avignon in three historic periods; late Roman, 14th c. (papacy's "Babylonian Captivity"), and up to and during WWII.

Posted by
6586 posts

I'm surprised no one has suggested any of Alan Furst's "historical spy novels" of WWII. They travel all over Europe but nearly all have some action in Paris. "The World at Night" is especially Paris-centric.

Rutherfurd's "Paris" is a good portrayal of various historical periods. I don't like the way he jumps around chronologically (unlike his other novels about London, New York, etc.) but you still learn a lot and enjoy the characters.

I loved Gopnik's "Paris to the Moon," though I generally don't enjoy his New Yorker pieces now. It's not a novel, nor history, but an entertaining memoir of his family's time in Paris that tells you a lot about the French and the city.

The Cara Black mysteries are fun, though after a couple of them you get a little tired of the characters and their shtick. They're all titled "Murder in the (insert neighborhood)." Look for one set in a part of Paris where you'll be staying, or spending time. I always end up with the book in one hand and a map in the other!

You didn't ask for straight history, but I have to mention "A Traveller's History of Paris" by Robert Cole. Much more accessible than the more academic stuff, or (God forbid) French historians in translation. And it focuses on the city, but of course you get a lot of history of France as well.

Posted by
14580 posts

A few of the scholarly French historians whose classic works can be read in English translation are the following: Paul-Maria de La Gorce, Georges Lefèbvre, Raymond Aron, Georges Rudé, A. Sorel.

Posted by
6586 posts

A couple more novels, both about the French Revolution in Paris:
"City of Darkness, City of Light" by Marge Piercy. Chapters alternate among the viewpoints of Danton, Robespierre, Mme de Sevigny, Desmoulins, and others including some fictional.

"A Place of Greater Safety" by Hilary Mantel. This recommended by my wife, a much more accomplished reader than I.

Posted by
101 posts

I really love historical fiction books by Michelle Moran. I especially loved "Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution" which describes Madame Tussaud's impact on French society and her viewpoint of the French Revolution during the period of Marie Antoinette. It really opened my eyes to the utter discontent of that time. Michelle Moran also wrote "The Second Empress: A Novel of Napolean's Court" an "insiders" view of Napolean's life from the vantage point of his second wife. These novels always inspire my travels! Happy reading.

Posted by
89 posts

"Queen's Play" by Dorothy Dunnett is a very entertaining and historically correct novel set in France of the 1500s. Will give you a good feel for court intrigue during the reign of Henri II.
Also, "Is Paris Burning" is a great account of the liberation of Paris in WW2. Not a novel, but it is so well written that it reads like one. Try to see a copy of the original hardback edition (from a library) which has great photos of the destruction of parts of Paris, and Nazi parades down the Champs d'Elysees.

Posted by
19 posts

I'm presently working my way through "The Seven Ages of Paris", by Alistair Horne. It's lengthy and opinionated (Horne is English, I'm guessing) but it's a good chronology of Paris and the style makes it a fun read. Read it with your Borsch Map of Paris for reference. I'm headed there again in a couple weeks, but I don't know the city that well yet.

Posted by
1190 posts

OK, let me be honest, this recommendation is not a novel. It is history written at the most enjoyable level. The author was born 1877 and presented her book to Harvard University Press about 1950 and became the first book by Harvard University Press to hit the New York Times best seller list where it stayed for months.

You can get a copy rather inexpensively from ebay. What is this book? 'Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings'. It takes you on the second crusade, Eleanor being married first to the king of France then to the king of England. Her sons, the two we remember are , Richard the Lion Hearted (third crusade, captured, held for ransom) and John Lackland who signed the Magna Carta.

She uses historic records and diaries of some of the principals as her source material. When she doesn't know something she says so. This is a great story that includes the murder of Thomas Becket. If it weren't history it would make great fiction. If you don't like the first two pages set it aside.

wayne iNWI