Here in Granny Flat HQ, it’s fair to say that books outnumber people. Books outnumber all of my pieces of crockery and cutlery put together. And probably clothes, too if I’m honest. If I can put it into perspective, I’m a huge fan of wine and love nothing more than cracking open a decent bottle with carefully selected invitees. I have a wine rack in fact. It’s filled to the brim with the good stuff. Books.
So obviously, as is my duty as an avid reader and Paris resident, I’ve obediently consumed a good number of the ex-pat literature on France, of which there are a massive amount of examples. We’ve all heard of the Stephen Clarke Merde series, good enough for a giggle but one of the leaders of a band of books that seem to trade on French stereotypes and Parisian clichés. It’s as if writers are still trying to recreate the success of Mayle’s Provence series, with most being poor substitutes.
I personally don’t think many of the I-moved-to-a-foreign-country-and-here’s-my-hilarious-take-on-the-natives examples floating around are really much cop, relying on the same tired format and hackneyed anecdotes. But happily I have stumbled across a few gems that offer a fresh perspective on a city, so here’s a few recommendations, good for residents and those who just love a bit of French flair in their lives, whatever their location.
Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard is on the more saccharine side of the genre, but that’s no bad thing. There are those moments we want to ignore the dog poo coating the streets, being pushed on the metro and ignored in restaurants and concentrate on the magic of Paris that can fade into a pin prick the longer you stay here. Paris is magic. But Paris can be incredibly jading too. There’s nothing like seeing the city afresh through the rose-tinted glasses of an enthusiastic American to restore the romance. Plus you get cooking tips too.
Paris-centric The Secret Life of France sounds at first glance like another in a long line of conveyor belt fluff about an individual’s experience in this sometimes maddeningly complicated country, complete with stroppy waiters and stripy-jumper-clad plumbers named Pierre who don’t know the first thing about fixing pipes. So many of these books are paint-by-numbers accounts jumping from croissant to ancient writer’s hangout and back again, but Oxford-educated Lucy Wadham offers a hugely intelligent view on the living in Paris, and France as a whole, looking into history, politics, medicine and schooling, and everything in between. Exhaustively researched, its view of the French psyche is as thorough, funny and accurate as any I’ve seen.
If it’s the tales the city can tell about itself that float your literary boat, Pure by Andrew Miller gives an excellent fictional account of one of the grisliest histories, the emptying and eventual demolition of the Cemetery of the Innocents (and the subsequent creation of the Catacombs), its overflowing graves stinking out the area around St Eustache and Châtelet back in the day. Set in pre-Revolutionary Paris, the writer conjures up a vivid portrait of what the atmosphere and geography was during that era, in all of its putrid, cramped, wonky-building-ed glory. As historical fiction goes, I haven’t read much better.
In The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, John Baxter winds through the city following in the footsteps of many a famous inhabitant, doing that thing Parisians love doing best, walking. Sure he hits the well-known boulevards and visits the sites of literary heritage visited by the world and his wife before. But he does go off the beaten track a little bit too, painting a harmonious picture of gritty realism and magical history, with a few of his tales of domestic bliss and time as a walking tour guide thrown in for good measure.
Though a tour of the whole country, with a mere chapter on Paris itself, A Goose in Toulouse by Mort Rosenblum is a must-read for those interested in French food culture (so that’s all of us then). A quite delicious dive into the culinary heritage of a nation that occupies its collective mind more than most on such matters, Rosenblum gets to know Michelin chefs, local producers, decades-old restaurant patrons and those trying to tooth-and-nail to keep centuries-old traditions alive. It’ll inspire a desperate motivation to make full use of the kitchen, or at least a gargantuan appetite. Preferably both.
And Robert est ton oncle as the French would say. Whether it’s the real version of Paris scheduled for the spring, or a desire to capture the atmosphere of one of the most enchanting cities in the world without actually being there, these will keep you going through the winter months. Happy reading mes amis.