Voulez-vous lire avec moi ce soir?
I’m getting this in just under the wire, in the final hours of Bastille Day. For those of you who are unaware, July 14 in France is basically the equivalent of Independence Day here in the States, or what I’ve always assumed Canada Day to be for our northern neighbors. I’m not 100% sure on whether fireworks, hot dogs, and cheap beer are involved, but I’d assume baguettes and wine are consumed. (Apologies for the gross stereotypes — I went to Paris once for a weekend while studying in the Netherlands and literally never even got to the Bastille, because we got distracted by a long hunt for the Moulin Rouge and quite possibly one of the best meals we ended up having in Europe.)
I digress. Most of us should have an inkling of what Bastille Day is about, so I won’t rehash it. All I want to say is, no, Les Miz is not set during the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette never said that the peasants should be allowed to have their cake and eat it, too. And also, fuck Robespierre. Fucking Robespierre.
So, I took French from eighth grade all the way through senior year of high school. For those keeping score at home, that’s a shit-ton of French. Unfortunately, the language has mostly left me (there are most likely French three-year-olds who could hold a more in-depth conversation than I could right now), but the love of the language, the culture, and the place have never left me, and I don’t believe they ever will. As mentioned above, I spent one glorious weekend in the City of Light, and I spent a few hours of that time crying because I had finally gotten to see the Eiffel Tower, live and in person. I also ate a bunch of bread.
I love France. But I sometimes I suspect that I love France for all the wrong reasons. I love the Sun King’s sassy high heels and I love the gardens at Versailles. I sometimes quietly lament that our Generation is not Lost, that we have no swanky cafes to gather in, in order to discuss the art of the day and to sleep with each others’ spouses. I’ve never really been much obsessed with the early twentieth century, but if I could have been in Paris in the years between the wars, I think I would’ve been in heaven. I would still not be able to speak much French, but probably I would have gotten to go to some bull fights with Hemingway.
Beyond high school history and foreign language classes and American ex-pats, I love France for the food, and for Edith Piaf, and for Moulin Rouge! (Who knew a movie could simultaneously be so godawful and yet so incredible? Oh, wait. Probably me. Godawful-yet-awesome is absolutely me new M.O.) Almost all I know of France, I know from the media, and seventy-two hours I once spent there.
So I found myself on the train home from work this morning when I realized: it’s Bastille Day, and I had not yet to listen to Nicole Kidman crooning Beatles covers.
But then I also realized: oh, wow, I have some great books that have to do with two very different eras in French history, both of which appeal to my stereotyped and shallow understanding of France and her history and culture! What luck!
So plug in your headphones and be sure to check out two of my #tbr titles, both of which I plan to devour in the upcoming weeks. Allons-y!
(And no, that’s not a Doctor Who reference. It’s one-third of the high school French I remember.)
The Devil in Montmartre by Gary Inbinder
I picked this one up at work today, for some work-related reasons, but also mostly because I’ve basically meant to read this book since last fall, when we first got galleys into the office. I finished up a book on the train and was overjoyed to remember that I’d snagged some holiday-appropriate literature to deliver me safely to my final destination.
Full disclosure: Again, I work for the company that publishes this book; I stole a free copy from our book room to read; and I’m only about 8 pages in. But Devil has already managed to draw me right in! Set in 1889 Paris, against lush backdrops that include the can-can dancers of some famous place with a red windmill, the World Exposition, and some new-fangled lightbulbs, The Devil in Montmartre follows one Inspector Lefebvre as he uses all the most modern techniques (photography! pathology! not blaming everything on Satan!) to solve the murder of a beautiful can-can dancer. But following the discovery of the dancer’s corpse, rumors immediately begin to swirl that Jack the Ripper has crossed the Channel to haunt the Parisian streets. And it seems only Lefebvre can stand up to old Jack.
Also, there are two ladies who I’m pretty sure are lesbians and I’m kind of thinking right now that Toulouse-Lautrec might be the murderer (or is a very, very obvious red herring). I’m sold.
Villa America by Liza Klaussmann
I recently signed up for the Shelf Awareness emails, and between my daily dose of book news and my chances to request awesome galleys, I am not disappointed to have done so (I highly recommend that everyone also sign up). Last week, I requested a copy of Villa America, which follows an ex-pat couple as they traverse the wilds, wonders, and glamor of the French Riviera of the 1920s. The galley tells me that the couple in this novel are based on the real couple that in turn inspired Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, which is absolutely one of my all-time favorite books, and also mentions that Klaussmann “does for Sara and Gerald Murphy what Paula McLain and Michael Cunningham did for Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf in The Paris Wife and The Hours.”
The Lost Generation? Fancy rich people getting drunk on white sand beaches? The Paris Wife? Count me in, about a million times over. I’m very much looking forward to reading Villa America, and I’ll be sure to let you know if it stands up to all my wild expectations the moment I’ve finished it.
Happy reading, kiddos! Lady Marmalade out.
Vive la France!
I know I’ve read more and it’s just the day catching up with me, but some of my favorite fiction books based in and around France include Les Miserables and Birdsong, and a few months ago I read A Good Place to Hide, which chronicles the life and times of the people in a small French village who hid thousands of Jews during the Holocaust — a riveting read, to be sure! I’m a sucker for World War II literature (fictional or non), so I’ve probably read most anything having to do with that.
But tell me: what are some of your favorite French stories? What should I read once I’ve finished The Devil in Montmartre, Villa America, and that stack of books staring at me from across the room?