It’s summertime and humid, sweaty days call for a getaway, even if you can only escape through a book.
Some days you want a romance, other days call for a thriller you can’t put down. Sometimes a personal and intimate autobiography in your favorite armchair is exactly what you need. But finding the greatest of any genre can be tricky and time-consuming, so we took off some of the load. Pro tip — French editions are expensive online so try out a used version for much cheaper!
Regardless of where you are in the world, these various French titles are perfect for summer lounging on a beach, long train rides to work, or to crack open as you settle into bed.
1. Le Silence des étoiles by Sanäa K.
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Sanäa K’s first graphic novel is an artistic memoir that tells the story of a young woman, presumably the author, her blossoming love, ensuing heartbreak, and the group of women who bring love and solidarity into her life. The main character of the novel mirrors Sanäa K.’s self-portraits that she features on her Instagram which is dedicated to her artwork. The author-illustrator is most known for her inclusive and realistic drawings of women, bringing feminism into her art and creating space for other women to find and celebrate themselves through her work.
2. Ladivine by Marie Ndiaye
Though perhaps not a quintessential, easy summer read, Ladivine is worth the time. A dense and psychologically charged story, Ndiaye navigates two generations of mother-daughter relationships and the secrets they keep from one another. Ndiaye’s characters mirror each other in their first names – Ladivine being both the grandmother and granddaughter’s name – but they also share similar fates, each woman unwilling to take off her carefully constructed mask. Any reader is sure to become engrossed in the novel, finding themselves re-examining their own world and the everyday lies people cling to. (English translation is also available.)
3. Petit pays by Gaël Faye
Faye, a Franco-Rwandan rapper turned author, brings the reader into the life of Gabriel, a young boy living in 1992 Burundi during the civil war and Rwandan genocide of 1994. His book, which won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in 2016, references his song “Petit Pays” and his previous albums that tell his story growing up as a mixed-race child in Burundi. Faye has said that his process of intentionally including everyday sensory details of Gabriel’s life aim to “bring back to life a forgotten world, to speak to our discreet, happy moments” — aspects that are often missing in French literature about Burundi. (English translation is also available.)
4. La Vraie Vie by Adeline Dieudonné
La Vraie Vie, which won Le Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in 2018, is set in a house that seems like any other. Dieudonné’s most recent science-fiction is a thrilling depiction of an unnamed young girl, her younger brother, Gilles, and the tragic incident that interrupts their lives. Raised by a practically silent mother and a father more dedicated to hunting and television than his children, the duo grow up in eerie proximity to death and disappearance, playing in old crashed cars and with their father’s dead animals kept in a side room. After tragedy strikes, Gilles changes dramatically and we follow his older sister’s resilient effort to bring back the brother she knew.
5. La Légèreté by Catherine Meurisse
As a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo, Meurisse’s life changed drastically after surviving the 2015 attack in which she lost dear mentors and friends. This graphic novel speaks to her life after the fact and shows her return to drawing by focusing on beauty and lightness in the world. Meurisse’s book offers her readers a tale of loss and resilience through fluid and confused memories woven together with the author’s dry humor and stunning artwork.
6. Les Passeurs de livres de Daraya by Delphine Minoui
This novel, set from 2012 and 2016, is an intimate account of a rebel group in Daraya, Syria who created a library with books salvaged from beneath the city’s ruins. The story draws from the correspondence Minoui maintained as a journalist with these activists, making the story as personal and intimate as it is specific. The novel touches on literature’s critical role in asserting agency in the face of violence, resisting domination, and strengthening communities under siege.
7. Le Manuscrit inachevé by Frank Thilliez
If you’re looking for a good mystery thriller, Thilliez’s new book offers just that. The author intersperses his gripping storyline with significant clues and creates a puzzle for the reader to solve. The plot is split between a mother whose marriage crumbles after her daughter is kidnapped and the mysterious backstory of a high-speed car crash where a woman’s severed body is found in the trunk. Thilliez keeps his reader asking questions, making connections, and wondering how all the pieces fit together until the last page.
After publishing the first two books of this series in 2015, the first of which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker international prize, Despentes released the last novel in the Vernon Subutex trilogy in 2018. The novels begin in Paris with Vernon, a broke, middle-aged record store owner. His life changes dramatically when his old pop star friend (and source of income) dies from an overdose, cutting off Vernon’s access to stability. The touching and wild stories of suddenly homeless Vernon and the people he encounters show the social inequalities and forgotten people of contemporary Paris. Despentes challenges present-day stigmas about the city’s displaced residents, drug usage, gender, and sexuality. (English translation is available for book 1 and book 2.)
9. Frère d’âme by David Diop
Friends since childhood, Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop are two Senegalese sharpshooters in the ranks of the French army during World War One. After Mademba is shot dead in front of Alfa, the book revolves around Alfa’s gradual disassociation with the world – eventually even with himself – and the methods he uses to process his trauma. Haunted by the violent death of his close friend, Diop’s character questions his role as a Senegalese farmer fighting a European war that isn’t his.
Featured image: Stock Photos from Jose AS Reyes / Shutterstock