I read a lot of amazing French books in 2021. Some gripping French novels, stories of fantastic women, essays…
And as the year comes to an end, I’d like to share mes coups de cœur (= my favorites) with you.
(Many of them had been recommended by French writer & cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu. Click here to see her Instagram.)
C’est parti !
1) My French books in 2021: Page turners
2) My French books in 2021: A bit different
3) My French books in 2021: Sociology
4) My French books in 2021: Women stories
5) My French books in 2021: On child abuse
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1) My French books in 2021: Page turners
- Couleurs de l’incendie (Colors of the Fire) – Pierre Lemaître
In 1927, a young French mother takes revenge on all who got in her way – while the colors of the fire that will burn Europe are already on the horizon.
It’s the second book of a trilogy, between the excellent Au revoir là-haut (The Great Swindle) about a WW1 veteran, and Miroir de nos peines (“Mirror of our sorrows” literally). Au revoir là-haut got a film adaptation (See You Up There in English), and Couleurs de l’incendie is poised to have one as well.
Everything about this trilogy is amazing, and most of it won prestigious awards.
- Né d’aucune femme (Born of No Woman) – Franck Bouysse
A dark, chilling, poetic tale of a peasant girl, sold too young to a man too cruel, in late nineteenth-century France.
- Changer l’eau des fleurs (Fresh Water for Flowers) – Valérie Perrin
A caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne lives her life of small joys, optimism, melancholy, and friendship.
- Trois jours et une vie – Pierre Lemaitre
A child kills his friend by mistake. This psychological novel follows him during these eventful three days, and his whole life.
- L’aube sera grandiose – Anne-Laure Bondoux
For a whole night, secluded together in a cabin on a lake, a mother tells her teenage daughter the hidden story of her life. Funny, tragic, upsetting, a moving tale of family.
- Les impatientes – Djaïli Amadou Amal
The interwoven stories of three women. A moving novel about women’s condition in the Sahelian region of Africa, and the general violence against women.
- La carte postale – Anne Berest
The author received une carte postale (= a postcard) that led her to retrace her family’s history, from their Russian roots to the gas chambers – and her grandmother’s life after that. It’s an investigation, a family novel, and a personal quest of meaning of what it means to be “Jewish” in her non-religious life.
The extra mile : I’m told there are parallels with Sainte Marguerite-Marie et moi by Clémentine Beauvais. The young, feminist, liberal author investigates the life of her ancestor, a mystical Catholic saint who struggled with her own demons. Lighter and funnier than La carte postale.
- Soif – Amélie Nothomb
Amélie Nothomb is a very famous, very prolific writer from French-speaking Belgium. Her 28th novel “Soif” (= “Thirst”) tells the story of the Passion of Christ, as narrated by Jesus. It’s irreverent and insightful, funny and tragic.
It reminded me of L’Évangile selon Pilate (Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt), the story of a thorough investigation as told by Pontius Pilate about that man that, according to his disciples, came back to life…
Extra mile : An in-depth review of Soif in audio format (with written recap) from the radio show Le Masque et La Plume. This show reviews every Sunday the latest plays and movies (“Le Masque” = the mask) or latest novels (“La Plume” = the quill, the pen). It’s a good podcast if you’re confident enough with real spoken French!
2) My French books in 2021: A bit different
- Honoré et moi – Titiou Lecoq
Titiou Lecoq is the author of the funny Les Morues and the insightful feminist essay Libérées !. In Honoré et moi, she writes about XIXth-century famous French writer Honoré de Balzac, his many mistakes and failures, and the parallels she sees with her own modern life.
Extra mile: Balzac is a classic French author, his work is part of the French culture cannon. He had a keen eye for society and human nature, and what he called La Comédie Humaine (“The Comedy of Man”), as he named his main series of work (more than 90 novels, essays, and tales!)
Before reading his sophisticated writing, you can also watch French movies adapted from his novels. Two of them were released in 2021 alone: Eugénie Grandet and Illusions Perdues.
- La Honte – Annie Ernaux
I’m an avid reader of Annie Ernaux. “La Honte” (= “Shame”) is a short autobiographical novel, telling the story of her strict upbringing, her parents’ efforts to escape poverty, and the familial violence that ended her childhood.
- La fin de l’homme rouge (“Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets”) – Svetlana Alexievitch
The fall of communism in the USSR, from the multiple points of views of its citizens – and what happened to the culture they shared, and their everyday reality. Not a French book!
Extra mile: By the same author, I loved La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme (War’s Unwomanly Face), that gives a voice to more than 200 women out of the 500 000 who became soldiers in the Red Army during WWII.
3) My French books of 2021: Essays and sociology
- Des mille et une façons d’être juif ou musulman – Delphine Horvilleur, Rachid Benzine
Literally “Of the one thousand and one ways to be Jewish or Muslim.” A dialogue between a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim intellectual, a woman and a man. It explores the personal and subtle ways one can live with their faith and traditions – and their freedom.
- Où va l’argent des pauvres ? – Denis Colombi
Literally “Where does poor people’s money go?”, this heavy essay is a detailed analysis of lower-class consumption, beyond the stereotypes.
Extra mile : I also recommend Le genre du capital – Céline Bessière, Sibylle Gollac (“The Gender of Capital”), on how women are often disadvantaged in building wealth and capital.
- En finir avec les idées fausses sur la laïcité – Nicolas Cadène
Literally “Getting over the false ideas about laïcité”, this short book answers some common questions about the complicated French concept of laïcité, a way to regulate the relationships between religion and society.
- Riche, pourquoi pas toi ? – Marion Montaigne, Monique Charlot-Pinçon et Michel Pinçon
“Wealthy: why not you?” (literally) is a fun comic book essay, following the fictional situation of someone winning a lot of money in the lottery – the world he’s going to enter, and the codes he’ll have to learn.
Extra mile :
The same sociologists also wrote Les Ghettos du gotha (about segregation by wealth); the comic book artist, Marion Montaigne, is famous for her series of science popularization “Tu mourras moins bête” (“You’ll die less dumb”). This series also got its TV animated adaptation: click here to watch (on Youtube).
4) My French books of 2021: Women stories
- Les femmes aussi sont du voyage – Lucie Azema
“Women can travel too” is a gripping book on women’s travels – how it’s being discouraged, the women who went travelling anyway, and how their experiences (and writings) differed from those of men.
- Et les femmes se sont levées – Marie-José Masconi
Portraits of women from La Résistance during the Occupation, in the eastern region of France : Lorraine and Alsace. Click here to learn more about Alsace!
- Fille – Camille Laurens
A novel about womanhood, and around the many meanings of the French word “fille”. It can mean “daughter”, “girl”, “spinster”, “prostitute”… Camille Laurens reflects on the experiences that shaped her as a woman.
- À vos Cycles : Guide du vélo au féminin – Louise Roussel
A curious book, doing its all to give women the will to ride bikes. Louise Roussel gives us portraits of women cyclists, ordinary or extraordinary, technical tips, and shows all the roads that lead to (and come from) riding bikes.
- Les strates – Pénélope Bagieu
I love this author. This comic book gives us personal slices of life, and reflections on deeper topics. Poetic and funny.
5) My French books of 2021: On child abuse
Only read those if you’re ready to get depressed! But they’re important and enlightening.
- La familia grande – Camille Kouchner
In January, Camille Kouchner broke a life-long silence about incest in her family of prominent intellectuals and politicians. This dark scandal of corruption of the elite rattled the country.
- Le consentement – Vanessa Springora
In January, Vanessa Springora broke a life-long “silence” about pedophilia in the 1970s, by a prominent novelist, well-connected among intellectuals and politicians. This dark scandal of corruption of the elite rattled the country. (“Silence”, because, well, looking back on his semi-autobiographical writings, a lot of it was a celebration of sexual exploitation of children.)
- Le berceau des dominations – Dorothée Dussy
An anthropological exploration of how incest happens in our society, by studying 22 abusers (in prison). A longer review here.
Extra mile :
Ou peut-être une nuit, a podcast in six episodes, about incest and the silence around it. Tremendous work. Its name (“Or maybe one night”) comes from a line in the famous song L’Aigle Noir by French singer Barbara, who revealed in her posthumous autobiography that she had been molested by her father. Some people interpreted the “black eagle” from her song as a memory of that abuse.
Anyway, learn more about good French book, and comic books, and funnier things, with these other lessons on Comme une Française !
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