From classic novels to cult feminist texts, France’s literary heritage is second to none.
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A former sex worker and rock critic, Despentes is now one of France’s most controversial feminists. She came to public attention with her first novel Baise-Moi (F*** Me), which she later turned into a film filled with sex and violence. Apocalypse Bébé is a contemporary thriller and romance, which follows private detective Lucie as she chases a Parisian teenager across the country.
The Noir series of location-based short crime fiction stories is a global phenomenon. It started in America with Brooklyn Noir, and has now spread as far as Delhi and Beirut. Marseille has a reputation as one of France’s more corrupt cities, making it the perfect backdrop. Each story has been chosen by French writer Cédric Fabre and translated into English, making it the perfect entry into French crime writing.
British novelist Wadham married a French man when she was just 18, swapping her Oxford student friends, baked beans and biker boots for a bourgeois life in Paris. The Secret Life Of France is her amusing and touching autobiography, but also an outsider’s guide to the French way of thinking, covering everything from breast feeding to having affairs. Oh là là!
Nothomb is the best-selling author you’ve never heard of. A popular figure on France’s literary scene for a long time, the Belgian writer is known for her ability to produce a book nearly every year. Pétronille, her latest, concerns the intense friendship between two spiky female writers and has been described as a literary Thelma And Louise. If your book club likes wine, you could try and match the two of them drink for drink, but you’ll live to regret it.
This book won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. It’s divided into three loosely linked sections, all dealing with the relationship between France and former colony Senegal. Norah, a Paris-raised lawyer, returns to Dakar to deal with her ill father. Rudy manipulates his wife into staying with him. The powerful closing section follows young widow Kady Demba as she makes a horrific journey towards Europe.
Few authors have achieved cult status like Colette. Having escaped from a bad marriage to become a successful writer, dance on tables, obsess over beautiful stationery and take lovers, she became the template for bohemian French womanhood. Chéri is her 1920 novel about a middle-aged woman’s love affair with a much younger man. Central character Léa is sexy and compelling and will trigger interesting debates about the way older women are viewed today.
Author and intellectual De Beauvoir is best known for her feminist work The Second Sex. Memoirs Of A Dutiful Daughter is the first volume of her autobiography, dealing with her strict childhood. Thoughtful and accessible, it shows that even the greatest women can suffer adolescent angst.
Astragal is the story of Anne, who breaks her ankle escaping from prison (Sarrazin herself spent time in jail, before her death aged 29) then falls for a motorcyclist who is also trying to escape his past. Rock icon Patti Smith, who wrote the foreword to the most recent British edition, lists this cult novel as her favourite book. Definitely one for getting in the heads of outsiders and humanising the bad girls.
If you read the Gustave Flaubert classic Madame Bovary at school, re-reading it for your book club is just cheating. Instead try Zola’s 19th century novel, which also involves infidelity, but in a far more brutal way. Thérèse is married off to her sickly cousin, Camille, by an overbearing aunt. Stifled, she begins a passionate affair. It’s dark, shocking and has lasted well over the years.