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Paris is Always a Good Idea: 6 Great Reads Set in the City of Light

by CB Cowling

posted on February 20, 2019

Photo Courtesy: iStock / Alex Kozlov

To pack the perfect travel read is an art. Some favor the weighty doorstop tomes, but we say they’re too hard to dip in and out of as you doze off on the plane and hop in and out of the metro. When traveling, we lean towards funny, pacy novels, memoirs, collections of essays, and histories that read like anthologies: things you can pick up and put down in stolen moments as you discover the city around you. Evocative, immersive, and atmospheric, a great book adds to your experience of a city instead of taking you farther away. Or if you’re only dreaming of a visit, they’ll transport you to the heart of a place for considerably less than the price of airfare.

So the next time you journey to Paris (whether by plane, train, or imagination) make sure you pack a few of our favorites. Worst case? You’ve got a perfect prop for looking chic and intellectual at that sidewalk cafe.

(Photo Courtesy: iStock / encrier)

“Paris is a dream, Zazie is a dream. This whole story is a dream within a dream.”

The landmarks and squares of sixties Paris are the backdrop for Raymond Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro, a Rabelaisian romp led by one of the most memorable children in fiction. Precocious, foul-mouthed, and peculiar, Zazie visits the capital with one goal in mind: to ride the iconic metro. When a strike derails her plans, she’s let loose on the city and its nightlife to wreak havoc and raise hell. Plot takes a backseat to wordplay in this wildly-comic cult classic ode to New Wave Paris.

“A scowling gray universe relieved by pastry. This was my first impression of Paris.”

Adam Gopnik’s collection of thoughtful and perceptive essays on life in Paris were published almost twenty years ago, but they remain an evergreen classic when it comes to the foibles and rewards of an expat’s life in the City of Light. Paris to the Moon chronicles a young family coming to grips with life in the enigmatic capital through a series of vignettes, covering everything from struggles with bureaucracy to the fickleness of French fax machines. Gopnik’s clear prose and observant eye illuminate Paris as a city that proves hard to get to know, but proves all the more rewarding for it.

(Photo Courtesy: iStock / Alex Kozlov)

"High up in Montmartre, there was a festive atmosphere, people were crowding round the little tables where rose wine was being served . . . Yet a hundred meters further on, the little alleyways were deserted, and the killer might find it easy to pounce.”

It’s a hot and humid August in 1950’s Paris, and a serial killer is on the loose. The prolific George Simenon was a master of the detective story, creating some of the most atmospheric and technicolor portraits of the city in print, and Maigret Sets a Trap is one of his best. The titular Inspector solves cases with an emphasis on the psychological over the forensic, seeking to listen, interact, and understand — preferably over a Calvados in a smoky bar. We could have included any of the many Maigret novels set in the city, but this cat-and-mouse chase through the underbelly of Paris’ seedy outskirts and its colorful cast of characters and misfits is as atmospheric and enjoyable as they get.

“Each tale is true, and each is complete in itself, but there are also correspondences and crossroads, both literal and mysterious, which serve as landmarks in time and space.”

Truth is stranger than fiction in Graham Robb’s Parisians, a chatty guide to the city’s history which reads more like a collection of adventure stories than a dry nonfiction title. The noted historian and writer narrates the capital’s tumultuous past through a series of character studies, with each chapter devoted to a memorable figure who helped shape modern Paris. Criminals to kings, politicians to prostitutes, alchemists to architects: readers walk the city in their shoes, witnessing vital moments in history through their eyes. Bursting with revolutions, riots, and wrong turns, history reads like time travel in this delightful guidebook to Paris’ past.

(Photo Courtesy: iStock / Niel Sidhoum)

“If your charming son, innocent of the noise that is tormenting me, is with you, will you please convey all my best wishes to him and be so kind as to accept Madame my most respectful regards.”

Genteel passive aggression gives way to a deep friendship and understanding in Letters to the Lady Upstairs, a charming collection of 26 lost letters discovered in the archives of a Paris museum. From 1909 to 1919, the noise-phobic Marcel Proust lived and worked in his cork-lined apartment on the elegant Boulevard Hausmann. When a harpist and her dentist husband move into the apartment above (along with an ever-revolving cast of loud children, patients, movers, and renovators), the writer strikes up a correspondence with his new neighbor: beginning with subtle and circuitous pleas about the noise, and growing over the years into intimate musings on friendship, loss, family, and art.

“We don’t fit in. I thought Theo’s yellow oilcloth Petit Bateau coat was perfectly Parisian, but all the children here look like they have escaped from a 19th-century etching: they are exquisitely dressed in Bonpoint poplin and tweed and none of them is coated in drool or breakfast.”

A childhood encounter with a dog-eared copy of French Elle was the catalyst for writer and journalist Emma Beddington’s lifelong obsession with all things Parisian. We’ll Always Have Paris is an honest and truthful memoir of her time living, working, and raising children in the city, her failed attempts to feel truly “French” and the difficult task of breaking through the resident’s notorious sangfroid. By turns wry, witty, and melancholy, she muses on identity, grief, and the meaning of home while describing the city from an intimate and loving perspective. Cake is also a starring character here: no one writes about the infinitesimal joys of a good patisserie quite as beautifully as Beddington.

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