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Our Favorite French Novels by Women Writers

If you like life-long journeys

The Years, by Annie Ernaux (translated by Alison L. Strayer, Penguin Random House)

Shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize

A prominent voice in French literature, Annie Ernaux has been writing about her own life experience for the last five decades. The Years is no exception: a magnificent story spanning over sixty years, told through radiant past and present impressions—even future projections—as well as media (photos, books, songs, radio, television, and even ads).

A chronicled compilation of pictures, the book merges into political, social, familial, aesthetic, and intellectual events. As we follow her journey from adolescence to older age, there's tremendous reward in this exploration of Ernaux’s life, that becomes increasingly universal as we read on.

What they said: “An earnest, fearless book” - The New York Times

If you survived your punk years

Vernon Subutex, by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne, Macmillan)

Shortlisted for the 2021 Man Booker International prize

Vernon is a failing record store owner. Eventually, he becomes homeless with only the video legacy of a rock star who died of an overdose in his pocket. Armed with this coveted object, he reaches out to old friends from the 90s. Everything about Vernon Subutex is surprising: its tone, its style, its characters. An extremely rich and detailed exploration of 1990s Paris, especially its underbelly: an exuberant, drug-filled post-punk scene.

Despentes, a prominent figure of the #MeToo movement in France, has gained a cult-like following with this book series. The novel recently got its TV adaptation, with Romain Duris (The Spanish Apartment) as the eponymous character.

What they said: “This withering examination of France’s political polarisation is achingly hip” - The Guardian

If you like getting lost in fiction

The Travels of Daniel Ascher, by Déborah Levy-Bertherat (translated by Adriana Hunter, Other Press)

No one knows the real author of the young adult adventure series “Black Badge''. It’s a mystery whether it’s H.R Sanders, whose name is printed on the cover of every issue, or possibly Daniel Roche, a traveler, disappearing for a few months at a time. When Daniel's great-niece Hélène moves to Paris to study archeology, she hears about rumors: the twenty-fourth volume of the "Black Badge'' series will be the last one. Helen and her friend Guillaume (a big fan of her uncle's book) set out to discover more about this person life. By doing so, she discovered an explosive secret that can be traced back to the darkest days of the profession.

When looking back at the beginning of a period of history and the end of another period of history, "Daniel Asher's Travels" explores the nature of fiction and narration: is it a refuge, an invention or a substitute for grief? In this short but dense novel, Déborah Levy-Bertherat explores the family ties one makes and has made for them. A story of growth and reckoning in a beautifully portrayed (and illustrated!) Paris.

What they said: “this stunning debut novel had me gripped until the very end, and made me yearn for Paris in a way I never have” - My French Life

If you were a member of the French royalty in a past life

The Exchange of Princesses, by Chantal Thomas (translated by John Cullen, Other Press)

1721. Philippe d'Orléans, Regent of France, comes up with an idea as Louis XV, 11 years old, is soon to become King. An exchange of princesses would consolidate peace with Spain, after years of war that had left both kingdoms bloodless.

Philippe arranges a marriage between his daughter, 12-year-old Miss de Montpensier and the heir to the Spanish throne, while Louis XV is to marry the 4-year-old Infanta of Spain, Anna Maria Victoria.

But the precipitous entry of these young princesses into the court of the Great, sacrificed on the altar of power games, will have unexpected consequences.

No need to be an expert in French history to appreciate the verve and cruelty with which this inglorious episode is told, with a high dose of cynicism. The ambitions of some, the interests of others, the secret plots, everything is tied and untied like a knot of vipers around these children of royal blood used as props in the hands of adults. The daily life of a child King or Queen doesn’t seem as fun as it sounds!

What they said: “This is one vivid, engrossing, weird little book…One of the most fascinating historical narratives I’ve ever read.” —The Washington Post”


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