Where to start with French Classics

Beloved for their romance, tragedy and innovation, here are five masterpieces of French fiction you need to read.

Cheri by Colette (1920)

I love my past. I love my present. I'm not ashamed of what I've had, and I'm not sad because I have it no longer.

Colette was often called the voice of Paris, and Cheri is her famous love story about the romance between an older woman and a younger man.

Léa de Lonval who is an aging courtesan, a once famous beauty facing the end of her career. She is also facing the end of her most intense love affair, with Fred Peloux--known as Chéri--a playboy half her age. First published in 1920, it is delicately structured, and wonderfully written – and was instantly greeted by Marcel Proust and André Gide as a masterpiece.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1844)

All for one, and one for all!

Mixing a bit of seventeenth-century French history with a great deal of invention, Alexandre Dumas tells the tale of young D’Artagnan and his musketeer comrades, Porthos, Athos and Aramis. Together they fight to foil the schemes of the brilliant, dangerous Cardinal Richelieu, who pretends to support the king while plotting to advance his own power.

Bursting with swirling swordplay, swooning romance, and unforgettable figures such as the seductively beautiful but deadly femme fatale, Milady, and D’Artagnan’s equally beautiful love, Madame Bonacieux, The Three Musketeers continues, after a century and a half of continuous publication, to define the genre of swashbuckling romance and historical adventure.

Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky (2004)

Mothers and women in love: both ferocious females.

The remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control during World War II. Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940, as Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.

Némirovsky was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. For sixty-four years, this heartrending masterpiece remained hidden and unknown.

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir (1954)

Life without her would be death

The lost novel from the author of The Second Sex was published in English for the first time in 2020 and is the compulsive story of two friends growing up and falling apart.

An achingly tragic and beautiful coming of age novel based on de Beauvoir’s own life, The Inseparables paints an enthralling portrait of a formative relationship in interwar Paris.

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (1913)

What most enraptured me were the asparagus.

This is the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, one of the greatest French novels of the twentieth century. Following Charles Swann’s opening ruminations about the nature of sleep is one of twentieth-century literature’s most famous and influential scenes: the eating of the madeleine soaked in a ‘decoction of lime-flowers’. After fabulous reminiscences about Swann’s childhood, Proust describes his protagonist’s exploits in nineteenth-century privileged Parisian society and his obsessive love for young socialite Odette.

Filled with searing, insightful, and humorous criticisms of French society,  Swann’s Way unconventionally introduces Proust’s recurring themes of memory, love, art, and the human experience—and for nearly a century readers have deliciously savoured each moment.

Madame Bovary By Gustave Flaubert (1857)

An infinity of passion can be contained in one minute, like a crowd in a small space.

The publication in 1857 of Madame Bovary, with its vivid depictions of sex and adultery, incited a backlash of immorality charges. The novel tells the story of Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife bored and unfulfilled by marriage and motherhood. She embarks upon a series of affairs in search of passion and excitement but is unable to achieve the splendid life for which she yearns. Instead, she finds herself trapped in a downward spiral that inexorably leads to ruin.

A brilliant portrait of a woman torn between duty and desire; it is one of the greatest novels ever written.