Knowing something about your destination always enriches your travel experience. While planning your trip to France you may not have the time or the inclination to read historical treatises about it but there are many entertaining biographies and novels that will enhance your travel experiences.
If you only read one from each of the list below you will feel like you know France even before your plane hits the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle airport.
1. History of the French Revolution: If you are easily bored by standard-issue history books that talk about battles and politics, have no fear because there are many books about Marie Antoinette and her peers that will give a political overview but also give you an entertaining account of life at court in the 18th century.
Here are a few of my favorites: Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser is popular and known for its accessibility and its sympathetic treatment of the tragic queen. Queen of Fashion: What the Queen Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber is a fascinating examination of the role that fashion played in 18th century France and the Revolution, which was surprisingly significant. Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin by Caroline Morehead is a compelling biography of the life of an average aristocrat during the Revolution and how she navigated the turbulent social changes and political intrigues to survive. Lucie’s family fortunes change tenfold over the course of her life. She even lands in Albany, New York for a time and makes her own butter.
2. La Belle Epoque: Twighlight of the Epoque and Dawn of the Belle Epoque by Mary McAuliffe are perfect introductions to post-revolutionary France because they give you a smattering of insight on everyone you’ve heard of in the world of art, literature, politics, architecture and even science. After reading these books, everywhere you go in Paris you will know something about it.
3. Literature: Just because a book is fiction, doesn’t mean it can’t teach you about a destination. Artists are informed by their surroundings and novels often spring from a writer’s life experience. France is steeped in literary tradition and there are many fun classics to choose from that will make sightseeing more fun for you and your family.
Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame will make a visit to the Notre Dame cathedral more interesting for kids. Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s The Scarlett Pimpernel rescues aristocrats in the nick of time from the guillotine, Leroux Gaston’s Phantom of the Opera’s suspense and romance will enhance your tour of the Opera Garnier. Although not a children’s book, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo has intrigues, heroes and daring escapes, which make it fun to read out loud to your older children throughout your trip and it will be loved equally by both boys and girls.
4. Contemporary books about France: These are written by foreigners but provide the travel experiences and observations that you might expect yourself. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, On Rue Tatin: On Living and Cooking in a French Town by Susan Herrmann Loomis (warning: these two books will make you hungry), We’ll always have Paris: A mother daughter memoir by Jennifer Coburn and for older teenagers, French Milk by Lucy Knisley.