Les grandes vacances: six novels that will take you to France

    30 July 2020

    Many of us would have been looking forward to heading over to France this summer, whether by Eurostar, plane or car. Some will have been thinking of city breaks in Paris or Lille, while others will have been excitedly planning relaxing and lazy beachside holidays in the South.

    Congratulations to those who have braved it. For those of us staying put, all is not quite lost, however. There is a wealth of great literature set in France that will conjure up images of wonderful vistas and delicious food and drink, thereby offering a vicarious trip there. Here are six of the very best, whatever you’re into.

    Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love

    Nancy Mitford’s best novel – many would argue for Love In A Cold Climate, but they are wrong – might appear to be a quintessentially English story of upper-class debutantes and their eccentric family, but the French aspect develops surprisingly and charmingly. The book’s protagonist Linda Radlett, whose relationships with Englishmen have been predictably disastrous, finds herself stranded in Paris, where she falls in love with the dashing duke Fabrice and becomes his mistress.

    Mitford beautifully evokes both the prelapsarian charm of pre-war France and the seismic change that it undergoes when WWII broke out, as Fabrice abandons his carefully cultivated pose of disengagement and joins the French resistance. It would be too much of a spoiler to reveal what happens, but ‘bittersweet’ is a perfect way of describing Mitford’s Anglo-French entente.

    Joanne Harris, Chocolat

    ‘Sweet’, however, is the perfect way of describing Joanne Harris’s most famous book, an ode to all things chocolate-related. Those who have seen the soppy and sanitised film (produced by the high priest of toothless literary adaptations, Harvey Weinstein) may be surprised to find that the novel, while undeniably charming and warm, is a good deal tougher in its account of the struggle that develops when young single mother Vianne comes to the small French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes with the intention of opening a chocolaterie.

    The local priest is outraged, believing her to be a witch, and the conflict that arises between the two of them gives the book its dramatic centre, as well as providing much of its humour. It should be noted that it is officially impossible to finish reading this book and not crave at least one mouthful of chocolate, something that all sweet-toothed bibliophiles should beware of.

    Francoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse

    Upon Bonjour Tristesse’s publication in 1955, the Spectator’s literary critic sniffed at it as being ‘a vulgar, sad little book’, claiming that it had only been talked about because of its subject matter and Sagan’s youthful age. She was eighteen when she published it, and its scandalous subject, dealing with a complex love triangle that emerges during a summer holiday on the French Riviera between a teenager, her licentious father and his fiancée, attracted vast controversy internationally, which helped its sales immeasurably.

    Today it is worthy of comparison to JD Salinger as a novel about alienation, albeit with considerably more wit and panache. It is hard not to warm to the character of the father, Raymond, whose attitude towards life is encapsulated by his adoption of the Oscar Wilde maxim that ‘Sin is the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modern world.’

    Peter Mayle, A Good Year

    Peter Mayle led a life that most right-thinking people would envy. After a successful career in advertising, he gave it all up to move to the Luberon in Southern France and the non-fiction book that he wrote about his expatriate life there, A Year in Provence, did more to sell the idea of French village life to countless second homeowners than any number of estate agent brochures or glossy magazine pieces could.

    He later switched to writing fiction and his 2004 novel about a stockbroker who finds that he has inherited a French vineyard from his eccentric uncle is comfortably the least literarily distinguished of the books here. It does, however, benefit from Mayle’s keen eye for social observation and the difficulties that an Englishman has of assimilating himself into close-knit communities, and it was later made into a sumptuously beautiful (and quite underrated) film by Mayle’s neighbour Ridley Scott, starring none other than Russell Crowe as the bumbling financier.

    Sebastian Faulks, Charlotte Gray

    Sebastian Faulks has written about France many times in his career, and his most famous novel Birdsong deals with the horror of trench warfare in WWI in unforgettable detail. However, it is the last in his so-called ‘French trilogy’ which is the most readable. Faulks uses a WWII setting to tell the story of the young Scottish woman Charlotte Gray who, desperate to find her missing lover, joins the Special Operations Executive and is sent to Vichy, France to join up with the Resistance.

    It is rich in suspense, with endless hairs-breadth escapes and thrilling set-pieces, and an entirely unexpected resolution. It all but begged to be filmed, and so, as is often the way of these things, the eventual movie was a huge disappointment and a massive flop, despite the casting of Cate Blanchett as Gray.

    Patricia Highsmith, Ripley Under Ground

    The indelible character of Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s charming but amoral con artist, has been interpreted by actors including Alain Delon, Matt Damon, John Malkovich and, in a new TV series, Fleabag’s Andrew Scott. Yet it is the novels that capture him in all of his repellent glory best, and the third in the series, Ripley Under Ground, shows Ripley living the high life in France thanks to his role in a series of complex art frauds.

    Unfortunately, a disgruntled collector rumbles his dishonesty, and before long the bodies are mounting up and the gendarmerie are taking an interest in Ripley’s activities. As ever with Highsmith’s novels, the cool detachment with which she depicts murder will not be to everyone’s taste, but Ripley remains one of crime fiction’s most compelling characters, all but forcing the reader to remain on his side whatever awful thing he is doing.