For the Emilys: 8 Best French Novels That Accurately Represent Francophone Culture
Who doesn’t like French? Aside from the language’s beautiful sound, the culture can be fascinating, too. If you’re learning French or are interested in the French culture at large, perhaps you’re looking for the best French books to read, and there are many because the French have plenty of contribution to world literature. But a list of the best French novels doesn’t only include classics from dead white men. It also includes modern literature from authors of color who speak the language.
In the list below, I have recommendations that both include great classic French books and best modern French novels. These books were translated into English for non-francophone readers. Some books here also won prestigious awards in both France and beyond and were considered crème de la crème before getting exported. The selection also features not only French authors, but also authors from the rest of the French-speaking world, particularly from African countries, which were previously under France’s rule.
Yes, there are many excellent books by French and French-speaking authors out there. From Flaubert and de Saint-Exupéry, to Dumas and Hugo, there’s a lot to choose from, and it can be overwhelming to know where to start. But if you only need a few to read in order to understand the country’s culture, history, and colonial legacy, these eight best French novels do it better than that faux pas-filled and cliché-riddled Netflix TV series.
Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda
Published in 2004, Ensemble, c’est tout or Hunting and Gathering follows the lives of four different individuals: Franck, a chef; Paulette, an artist and Franck’s grandmother; Camille, a housekeeper; and Philibert, a history enthusiast. After living in an apartment building in Paris, they form a close bond that blossoms into friendship and, for Franck and Camille, romance.
In 2007, a movie adaptation came out.
At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis
Set in World War I when Europeans colonized Africa, the book tells the story of Alfa, a Senegalese soldier, and his friend Mademba. The latter is unfortunately killed during the war, begging Alfa to end his suffering. Alfa, however, hesitates to grant his friend’s request, and this decision leaves him feeling guilty after his death. In an attempt to avenge Mademba, Alfa decides to kill German soldiers. But this backfires as other soldiers in his camp accuse him of being a sorcerer.
Despite being a work of historical fiction, there seems to be some elements of magic in the book.
Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
This one is a classic novel that follows a professor and his nephew as they embark on a quest deep into the Earth’s core, of which they discover through a cryptic document. Along the way, they encounter human fossils and ancient creatures that still thrive in the bowels of the planet. They also find exotic flora and fauna and a giant, man-like creature. But being deep underground, they suffer from dehydration and suffocation.
This science fiction classic, considered one of the best French novels in history, was adapted into a movie in 2008.
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson
The book follows Moses, an orphan who experiences abuse at the hands of his caretaker. Moses fortunately escapes with the help of two friends from the orphanage, and together they form a gang in Pointe-Noire, Congo, to earn a living. While in there, however, Moses begins to mysteriously lose his memory and eventually commits a more serious crime than robbery.
The book was a finalist for the International Booker Prize in 2017.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor
This one is a crime fiction inspired by a true-to-life murder case of two young boys in New York by their caretaker. It follows French Moroccan couple, Paul and Myriam, who searches for a nanny for their children, Adam and Mila. After vetting applicants, they settle on Louise, a young French woman. Initially, they are pleased with her care of their children, as she plays with them, cooks their meals, and fulfills her duties.
However, the couple soon discovers more about Louise and the dirty laundry that she hides. In reality, she faces financial difficulties, such as not paying her rent and taxes, causing the couple to become frustrated with her.
The book was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016 in Paris.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras
Set in the 1930s, this modern classic tells the story of a young French woman who falls in love with an older Chinese businessman. While traveling to French-occupied Vietnam, she meets the wealthy man and begins a scandalous affair that, at the time, could ruin both their reputations if discovered.
Some speculate that the book may be Duras’s semi-autobiographical novel. But despite its contentious theme, The Lover gained global popularity for its exposé of hypocrisy on both sides, shining light on the Chinese’s “Great Wall” in relationships and the French’s “elitism.”
Straight from the Horse’s Mouth by Meryem Alaoui, translated by Emma Ramadan
Set in Casablanca, Morocco, the book follows Jmiaa, a sex worker who supports her family and her daughter. However, Jmiaa has to keep this profession a secret from them. Soon, her life takes a turn when she is hired as a consultant by a director, which leads to a job offer as an actor for a movie about her work.
This is Alaoui’s debut novel.
Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye, translated by John Fletcher
The book tells stories of three women from Senegal. The first story follows Norah, a lawyer with a strained relationship with her father. The second one is about Fanta, who struggles with her husband from Senegal. The last entry is about Khady, who is taken care of by her deceased husband’s parents but is eventually kicked out and forced to survive on her own in France. There, her life takes a turn for the worse.
Three Strong Women won the Prix Goncourt award in 2009 and was a finalist for the International Booker Prize in 2013.
Understanding France’s culture, history, and colonial legacy requires reading some big books. Aside from the list of select and best French novels above, here are some French books in translation and a mega-list of must-read books that are translated from French!