La rentrée littéraire, the annual time of the year when French bibliophiles, literary groups and the press go into a frenzy over a large number of newly published books. Each year in August, September and October, hundreds of books are published in France just before the country’s most prestigious literary prizes — the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Renaudot, and the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, among others — are awarded. This year, 336 new French books and 188 translations of foreign language books are expected to hit shelves between now and November. The prizes are hugely influential, and just making it on the shortlist can rocket an unknown author to fame in a few short weeks.
The bad news is that there’s so much exceptional writing, you’ll never be able to read it all. The good news is that every French media group — print, digital, broadcast — publishes its own list of favorites, which provides some nice direction. The best news for those of us not in France is that the French version of Barnes & Noble, FNAC, ships internationally (and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg).
Here are 10 French books published during this year’s rentrée littéraire topping the must-read lists.
1. “Soif” — Amélie Nothomb
Every year without fail, Nothomb puts out a new book. This year’s will without a doubt be a significant one for the 53-year-old author. Selected among the finalists for the Prix Goncourt, “Soif” recounts the last few hours of Jesus’s life — from Jesus’s perspective. For another Nothomb work, try her psychological thriller, “Cosmetique de l’ennemi.” — Albin Michel, 17€90, published August 21; available for purchase and international shipping on FNAC
2. “Le Ciel par-dessus le toit” — Nathacha Appanah
A strange and self-conscious teenager named Loup finds himself in an unfortunate situation that results in his arrest and admittance to the juvenile area of a prison. On the outside wondering how to free Loup are his sister and mother, who herself is reconciling with a dark past. The story, being considered for the Prix Goncourt, explores the darkness of the world and light that binds a family together. — Gallimard, 14€, published August 22; available for purchase and international shipping on FNAC
3. “Les Choses Humaines” — Katherine Tuil
Jean is a political journalist, his wife Claire is an advocate for feminist causes; together, they’re a power couple. But the neat life they’ve been living begins to fall apart when their son, attending a prestigious American college, is accused of rape. Tuil puts sex, the judicial system and our own fears on trial in this powerful new novel shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. — Gallimard, 21€, published August 22; available for purchase and international shipping on FNAC
4. “Mur méditerranée” — Louis-Philippe Dalembert
Dalembert recounts the story of three very different women on a boat together, having been rescued during a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean sea. Inspired by the true story of the Danish tanker TORM Lotte saving the lives of 300 refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean in a boat in 2014, the novel, in the running for the Prix Goncourt, paints a striking portrait of what it means to be a migrant desperate for a chance at a new life in Europe. — Sabine Wespieser Eds, 22€, published August 29; available for purchase and international shipping on FNAC
5. “Par les routes” — Sylvain Prudhomme
Two old friends, one love triangle, and a hitchhiking adventure. Prudhomme has written a profound existential adventure that will have you questioning the meaning of life and what happens when we question “what if.” — Gallimard, 19€, published August 22; available for purchase and international shipping on FNAC
6. “Le cœur battant du monde” — Sébastien Spitzer
In the 1860s, a woman living in the suburbs of London saves a child from the capital’s miserable streets. To make ends meet and protect him, she steals, lies, and prostitutes herself. Drastic measures must be taken because the child is, in fact, the illegitimate child of Karl Marx’s son, Freddy, who every police force in Europe is hunting for. “Le Coeur battant du monde,” under consideration for the Prix Goncourt, is a riveting story of the power of money, friendship and revolutions. — Albin-Michel, 21€90, published August 21; available for purchase and international shipping on FNAC
7. “Le Bal des folles” — Victoria Mas
This first novel has already claimed two awards, the Prix Première Plume and the Prix Stanislas, and it’s made it into the first selection of books being considered for the Prix Renaudot. The novel focuses on two women kept in the “hysterical” ward of a Paris hospital in 1885 and a female doctor’s attendant. Through these characters, the casual, daily oppression of women during the era is vividly depicted. — Albin Michel, 18€90, published August 21; available for purchase and international shipping on FNAC
8. “Le ghetto intérieur” — Santiago H. Amigorena
Vincent Rosenberg left Poland for Argentina in 1928. There, he met a woman who he fell in love with and had children with. But his whole live he couldn’t stop wondering about what he left behind: his mother, who wrote him letters about the construction of the Warsaw ghetto which he ignored, and millions of Polish citizens who died during Hitler’s regime. On the list of books being considered for the Prix Goncourt, the story, which is based on the lives of the author’s own grandparents, is about the “inner ghetto” of exile, the exile that Vincent felt and Amigorena feels now. — Editions P.O.L., 18€, published August 22; available for purchase and international shipping on FNAC
9. “Tous les hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon” — Jean-Paul Dubois
After three years without a new book, the master of French literature is back. Dubois’ new book, which is being considered for the Prix Goncourt, is an exploration of memory, humanity, and what it means to revolt against injustices. The protagonist, Paul Hansen, an inmate in a Montreal prison with a cellmate from Hells Angels, reflects on what happened in his life that led him to incarceration. — Editions de l’Olivier, 19€, published August 14; available for purchase and international shipping on FNAC
10. “Encre sympathique” — Patrick Modiano
Modiano is nothing if not a well-decorated author. Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014, the Prix Goncourt in 1978 and the Prix de l’Académie Française in 1972, the author will be hoping for another award with his 29th novel. Hardly anything about the book is known yet except that the protagonist’s name is Jean Eyben and he’s researching the disappearance of Noëlle Lefebvre, but the author’s name alone means that the book is getting buzz. Until the book comes out, prepare yourself with another great Modiano work, “Rue des Boutiques Obscures.” — Gallimard, 16€, published October 3; available for purchase and international shipping on FNAC