France is one of the world’s most illustrious literary destinations, so it would only be appropriate to do some reading before (and during!) your experience in France. The following works, novels, and memoirs will take you on a journey throughout the history of Paris, from its radical social and cultural changes in the 19th century, through the “lost generation” after World War I, and all the way up to the modern age. Reading about a destination is one of the best ways to prepare yourself, and while abroad, it is one of the best ways to help history and culture come to life. Let’s get started!
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Chances are that you’ve seen either a film or play adaptation of this story (or both!) but did you know that these are based off of the famed novel by Victor Hugo? Set in early 19th-century Paris, Les Miserables chronicles the lives and strifes of several main characters making their way during a tumultuous time period in Paris’s history. From protagonist Jean Valjean and adopted daughter Cosette, to two corrupt innkeepers, to a group of young revolutionary students, the book explores many themes and issues facing Paris during a dark period and culminates in the event of the June Rebellion in Paris in 1832 against the monarchy. Even if you’ve already seen the latest film adaptation of this classic novel, you’re going to want to read this — you may never see Paris in the same light.
La Comédie humaine – Honoré de Balzac
While this extensive collection of over 91 finished volumes of works may be a little daunting and not at all necessary to complete, they are a great way to familiarize yourself with old Parisian social life and culture and gain a deeper understanding for both class divides and for the way that Paris has been reshaped throughout history to accommodate a more modern and global city. Made up of novels, plays, and essays, La Comedié humane explores the lives of people living in Paris during this crucial time period and reports on them in a unique manner for the time period, naming Balzac as one of the pioneers of literary realism. While it may not be possible to read every edition in this collection, exploring the themes found in these works or watching some of their film adaptations will provide you with a deeper understanding of Paris and a great context for your international experience.
A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
This book has already been featured on our Top 5 Books to Read Before Visiting Europe list, and for good reason. This highly-acclaimed autobiographical work by Ernest Hemingway, published posthumously is a fantastic window into what Paris was like during the beginning of the twentieth century in the wake of World War I. The book chronicles Hemingway’s life and adventures around Paris as a broke, struggling writer trying to make a way for himself in one of the creative capitals of the world. He finds a kind of home in Paris that influences many of his future works, and makes important connections with other writers such as Gertrude Stein who help his writing career along in a very profound way. Hemingway talks about wandering the streets of Paris and drinking wine alone at cafes, and sparks a kind of calm inquisitiveness that we as travelers all hope to experience at some point on our journeys.
My Life in France – By Julia Child
Julia Child is a household American name in the world of cuisine, cooking, and homemaking, but did you know that she got her start in France? This funny autobiographical work follows the story of Julia Child’s time in France, beginning with her move across the pond. She knew nothing of French language or culture but was eager to learn, so she dove right in and began learning as much as she could. She enrolled in cooking courses at the Cordon Bleu, the famous culinary school, and worked on her French by shopping at local markets and practicing whenever she could. She eventually fought tirelessly with editors and publishers to get her now-famous cookbook to appear in print, and she had the opportunity to travel and see more of the world with her husband who brought her to France in the first place. This hilarious and insightful memoir is a great reminder of how to immerse oneself in a new culture and thrive in it — and you may just learn a thing or two about French cooking as well!
While these are only a few of the options, they will provide you with a great background in French history and culture, as well as how to navigate living as an expat in such a fascinating country. Of course, there are many other literary works that are important to read as well, such as:
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Are you interested in interning or studying abroad in France and want to learn what it’s all about? Start your application today or get in contact with one of our fantastic program advisors! Get ready to Change Your World.