The genre of Paris books — whether non-fiction studies about the City of Light, or novels set in the French capital — is an eternally popular one, and 2023 has continued to see the category expand.
Below is a crème de la crème of this year’s Paris reads; whether vividly informative or seductively escapist, they allow us to understand and appreciate our favourite city that much better, and ensure that our next real-life visit will be so much richer and more resonant.
Oh, and they also double nicely as Christmas gifts. To loved ones — but also ourselves, of course!
Bonne lecture …
Paris: Secret Gardens, Hidden Places, and Stories or the City of Light by Mary McAuliffe.
Mary McAuliffe, a true Paris dreamer, already has an amazing array of books on Paris to her name — a series of illuminating social histories of various periods, telling the city’s story through the lives of prominent Parisians of the times. This latest is just as delightful — think of it a literary millefeuille, for she takes a more multi-layered approach to history as she leads the reader on a virtual stroll around Paris, pointing out various details and landmarks, and relating the fascinating anecdotes behind them.
A Brief History of Paris by Cecil Jenkins
If you’re new to the long and complex backstory of Paris, this would be a perfect place to start. It’s written in a sleek and simple way, yet with an engaging tone, and a just-right peppering of titbits and trivia.
Metropolitain: An Ode to the Paris Metro by Andrew Martin
For Paris and train lovers alike, this charmer of a book is much more than a historical recap — as the subtitle suggests, it’s a billet-doux to the Paris métro, with a mix of eclectic information and sweet anecdotes.
Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War, 1929-39 by Florian Illies
Most of the action takes place in Germany, but there are enough Parisian scenes to satisfy the most fervent Francophile — as well as fans of Joséphine Baker, Simone de Beauvoir, and Lee Miller. Florian Illies tells the story of Europe’s descent into World War II through the love lives of key players of the times. To read it is to submit to a foreboding sense of doom, to commemorate and mourn those brilliant minds and souls who didn’t make it out alive, and to wonder how the human tragedy that is war can continue in the world to this day.
Paris in Turmoil: A City Between Past and Future by Eric Hazan
Jumping ahead to more recent Paris history, author and social activist Eric Hazan looks at the gentrification of working-class Paris, and other ways in which Paris is changing in the modern world. History is interwoven with philosophy, architecture and social studies in this call to arms to protect our precious City of Light.
The Postcard by Anne Berest
This autobiographical novel sees Berest (who co-authored the global phenomenon How to Be Parisian) explore the black holes in her family history, filling in blanks with touching imagined sequences where the historical records are silent. Years ago, Berest’s mother received a mysterious, anonymous postcard, scribbled with only the names of Berest’s great-grandparents and great-aunt and -uncle, Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie and Jacques, who perished in Auschwitz. Later, an antisemitic incident at Berest’s daughter’s school incited the author into action, determined to discover and honour her Jewish ancestors. In The Postcard, she and her mother launch into a deep-dive into their family history, one that reads like a detective story and, importantly, reminds a new generation of the devastation of the holocaust.
Star-Crossed in Paris: A True Romeo and Juliet Story in Hitler’s Paris by Heather Dune Macadam and Simon Worrall
The plotline — a vibrant Jewish Parisian girl with big dreams for the future falls in love with a boy from a family that’s collaborating with the enemy — could well be that from a top-selling historical fiction. The fact that this is a true story — retold from letters left behind by our doomed Juliet — makes this an utterly heartbreaking read.
In Search of Amrit Kaur: An Indian Princess in Wartime Paris by Livia Manera Sambuy
In 2017, Italian journalist Livia Manera Sambuy was wandering through a museum in Mumbai when a photo caught her eye. Its caption then piqued her interest, with its note that ‘Her Royal Highness Rani Shri Amrit Kaur Sahib’ had been arrested by the Nazis in occupied Paris, charged with selling her jewels to help Jews flee France. In Search of Amrit Kaur is Sambuy’s account of her years-long mission to trace Kaur’s life story. While the story meanders far and wide — with Paris only one stop on a journey that winds its way from colonial India to America and back to India of the present day — it shines a fascinating light on the glittering lives some Indians led in a past Paris.
The Paris Assignment by Rhys Bowen
Author of the beautifully lyrical The Venice Sketchbook, Rhys Bowen has turned her detail-oriented, meticulously researched attention to wartime Paris with her latest novel, which follows an English wife’s determined, dangerous quest to find her missing French Resistance husband.
The Paris Daughter by Kristin Harmel
Kristin Harmel, author of the top-selling The Book of Lost Names (among others) also knows how to write a riveting, skilfully plotted historical novel, not to mention create characters who live on in your mind for long after you’ve turned the final page. In The Paris Daughter, also set in Paris of World War II, an expat American finds herself targeted by Nazis, and must entrust her daughter to another family’s care so that she can go into hiding. When the war finally ends, however, she finds that family’s home reduced to rubble, and a desperate search for her daughter ensues. Have a box of tissues on hand.
The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard by Natasha Lester
Natasha Lester, of course, is also a brilliant historical novelist, particularly adept at multiple narratives. The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard takes us from the France of World War I to 1970s New York and then back to France in the present day, as well as taking us on an emotional rollercoaster of a tale, through themes of gender equality and family trauma, with a generous dose of glamour and intrigue thrown into the glorious mix.
The Paris Deception by Bryn Turnbull
Also set in wartime Paris, The Paris Deception stands out for its focus on the city’s art world, which the Nazis devastated by ruthlessly plundering the possessions of the city’s Jewish families. Incensed, a pair of estranged sisters-in-law reunite to save as much stolen art as possible, by switching them for forgeries, right under the wary, watchful eye of their Nazi bosses.
A Bakery in Paris by Amie K. Runyan
World War II Paris is once again in focus here, but this dual-narrative read also takes us back to 1870, as the Prussians are advancing on a petrified city. The heart of the action is a bakery in Montmartre, and two women from the same family, albeit decades apart, who find strength in adversity, and the importance of nurturing friends, family, and the soul. Extra brownie (gâteau au chocolat?) points for the mouth-watering recipes sprinkled throughout.
Art & Architecture
Giacometti in Paris by Michael Peppiatt
Art historian Michael Peppiatt moved to Paris in the 1960s, with a letter from Francis Bacon introducing him the Alberto Giacometti, who had lived in Montparnasse since the 1920s. While working up the courage to knock on Giacometti’s atelier door, he heard that the Swiss sculptor and painter had just passed away. Cue a lifelong fascination for the late artist and, eventually, this illuminating biography that also doubles as a story of Paris in a particularly vibrant moment in time.
MOMA goes to Paris in 1938 by Caroline M. Riley
On the brink of World War II, New York’s The Museum of Modern Art exhibited Three Centuries of American Art at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. While this book is likely to be more of interest to lovers of American art than of Paris, it’s nevertheless an interesting glimpse into the pre-war Paris art world, and how Parisians were coming to see their soon-to-be allies; it also serves as context for a later battle, the one where Paris would fight it out with an increasingly confident New York for the title of global art capital.
Robert Doisneau: Paris
Curated by the late, great photographer’s daughters, this stunning book of 560 images takes us from the joyous celebrations of the Liberation of Paris right through les trente glorieuses, the thirty-year period of French economic boom. Doisneau’s evocative black-and-white photos are a showcase of a capital where nostalgia mingles with modernity, and where people, from the well-known to the anonymous, the jazz dancers to the market sellers, show themselves to be the life force of their city.
Bagatelle: A Princely Residence in Paris by Nicolas Cattelain
The gorgeous Château de Bagatelle has been under renovation for several years and as we eagerly await its 2024 reopening this beautiful coffee table tome serves as the most delightful virtual visit, guiding us through its fun and fashionable history, as well as glossy images of the revamped château and its charming grounds.
Let’s Eat Paris! The Essential Guide to the World’s Most Famous Food City by François-Régis Gaudry and others
A follow-up to the best-selling France edition, this fabulously illustrated and brilliantly executed encyclopaedic cookbook is a must-have not just for foodies, but for all Francophiles. Expect such delights as how to make the perfect soufflé (and where to eat it), the fabulous timeline of Parisian culinary institution Maxim’s, the story of the Paris invention we now call a restaurant, and a celebration of the jambon-beurre baguette sandwich, a.k.a un parisien (along with where to find the city’s best). This book is head-spinningly as well as mouth-wateringly amazing.
Pretty City Paris: Discovering Paris’s Beautiful Places by Siobhan Ferguson
Another Paris addition to a popular franchise (Siobhan Ferguson has also produced Pretty City odes to London, New York and Dublin), this exquisitely visual book also doubles as an inspired guide to Paris, in the way it covers the gamut from culture to cuisine, as well as both never-get-old classics and hidden gems.
Paris through a Fashion Eye by Megan Hess
This special edition of illustrator Megan Hess’s love letter to Paris style — think larger format, luscious new cover, updated content — is the perfect Christmas present for fashion lovers or Francophiles of any age.