7 Novels Set in Paris: A Low-Key Guide to the City of Light

Lori Lamothe

(Pedro Lastra on Unsplash)

After sticking close to home for the past couple of years, I’m ready to start traveling again. Luckily, my mom — who is the most active senior I know — has always wanted to visit Paris. After a long lunch that involved champagne and chocolate-covered macaroons, we recently decided to take the plunge. Next spring we’re going to board a plane and spend a week there.

In the meantime, I’ve plunged into reading anything and everything about the legendary city. I have limited my choices to women authors (with the exception of Proust because, well, Proust). Paris might be known for romance, but I think of it as a place where women can find themselves.

Whether it was Sylvia Beach opening her famous bookstore or Julia Child learning French cuisine or Josephine Baker singing her heart out, Paris always provided the kind of freedom for women that wasn’t available elsewhere.

Without further adieu, here are seven Parisian novels I love, in no particular order:

1. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

If you’re into literary Paris, this is the book for you. Told from the point of view of Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, the novel meanders through the city during the twenties with forays to Pamplona and the French Riviera.

We get a realistic glimpse not only into the Hemingways’ marriage but into their daily life as well. Their baby gets whooping cough and they are barely scraping by from week to week while their wealthy friends blow through money at an astonishing rate. Then there’s Hadley’s friend who turns out to be, well, a little too friendly with the couple. By the end of the book, I’d grown genuinely fond of the woman so often dismissed as “the first wife.”

There are cameos of the usual suspects: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, not to mention many lesser known but important figures from that era. If you’ve read a lot of Hemingway, learning more about the people who formed the basis for some of his most famous characters will undoubtedly interest you.

2. The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman


Hoffman’s tale might seem like an odd choice because large sections of the novel don’t take place in Paris, but for me there is no other book that captures the city’s beauty as well. It also reveals the power of place to heal. Hoffman is a master of setting and this fairytale-esque novel of three dark-haired sisters is no exception.

Elv, Meg and Claire are modeled on the Bronte siblings. Together they build a fantasy world full of fairies and demons, complete with their own secret language. The world is a manifestation of their closeness but, ironically, its genesis was a brutal act that ultimately drives the three girls apart. Natalia, their grandmother who lives in Paris, is a steadying force on the three and on their harried mother too— as is the city itself:

They could hear doves in the courtyard. The sunlight was orange. They had to remember that. Meg wrote down the word orange, then folded the paper in half. They could cut up pears and write down all the colors of the light and listen to people laugh and smell the blooms on the chestnut tree and forget about the rest of the world.

3. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah


For years The Nightingale was “the book I kept hearing about.” Everybody was reading it and it was on my TBR list forever but I never got around to starting it until I picked up a 99-cent hardcover in mint condition at the Salvation Army.

Like The Paris Wife, Kristin Hannah’s novel is historical fiction. Like The Story Sisters, it tells the story of siblings who are estranged. Set during World War II, it chronicles the lives of two sisters who experience very different aspects of the German occupation. Vianne keeps herself and her daughter alive by billeting SS officers in her home. Isabelle joins the French resistance.

Though it is not a memoir, the book is based on the life of resistance member Andrée de Jongh. De Jongh organized and led the Comet Line, an underground effort that allowed countless pilots to escape Nazi-occupied Belgium.

4. Flowers of Darkness by Tatiana del Rosnay


This one is hit or miss but I picked it for two reasons. First, it is one of the few novels I can think of that involve Paris in the future, not the past. In Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel, terrorists have destroyed the Eiffel Tower, heat waves ravage the city and AI is a part of daily life. Second, I’m a huge fan of books set in a creepy yet architecturally unique buildings (I just started Riley Sager’s Lock Every Door and am channeling Jules right now).

Like The Paris Wife and Paris for One, creative types feature as major characters. Clarissa is a writer who is not writing — partly because she is still getting over her husband’s, um, affair. The apartment building, which is an exclusive artists’ colony, seems like the new start she needs. She names her AI assistant Mrs. Dalloway and gets ready to work. At first all seems well.

It doesn’t take long, however, before strange events begin to occur and Clarissa gets the distinct impression she is being watched. But for what possible reason?

While the ending didn’t quite work for me, the novel held my attention and the writing is as gorgeous as the title. Still, if futuristic Paris minus the Eiffel Tower isn’t your thing you can read any of de Rosnay’s other novels, most of which are set in Paris. Sarah’s Key, her best known work, lives up to the hype.

5. The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley


If you’re planning on getting this novel from your library, I strongly advise you to reserve a copy now. It took me months to work my way up the wait list but it was worth it. The Paris Apartment is the kind of locked-room whoddunit that’s weirdly addictive. Think Only Murders in the Building.

Like Tatiana de Rosnay’s Flowers of Darkness, Foley’s mystery is set in an atmospheric apartment building full of odd characters with secrets to hide. Jess, the main character, is also a Brit seeking a new start (albeit with a more compelling reason and at a much younger age). When she arrives in Paris, her journalist brother Ben is nowhere to be found. Likewise, his apartment is empty and smells of bleach.

I won’t say more for fear of giving away the ending, but there are plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing.

6. Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black


Black’s novel takes its cue from a historical fact: in June 1940, when Paris fell to the Nazis, Hitler spent three hours in Paris. After touring local landmarks, he departed abruptly for Germany, never to return. Three Hours in Paris posits a fictional answer to the unsolved mystery of his abbreviated visit.

Kate Rees has one mission: to assassinate Hitler. The American marksman has good reason to want to succeed. Her husband and infant daughter recently died in a U.K. bombing and she wants nothing but revenge. Despite her resolve, the best laid plans of this assassin go awry and she is soon on the run for her life.

The book has been compared Day of the Jackal and Eye of the Needle. I don’t disagree, though it’s hard to match Follett’s thriller. If you’re in the mood of more of a procedural, Black’s Aimee LeDuc series has 20 installments set in Paris. I can’t vouch for them because I haven’t read any. . . yet.

7. Paris for One by JoJo Moyes


If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy of Me Before You. My mom’s friend gave the book to me when I was struggling through some pretty long chemo sessions. I knew the tear-jerker story would be tough emotionally, so I put it off until I finished treatment. Predictably, when I did read it I was a hot, sniffling mess for the last 50 pages.

While Me Before You isn’t a “Paris novel” per se, it’s the city Will loves most and it comes into play at the end of the book. He tries to describe Paris for Lou, who has never been anywhere, and does a pretty good job:

Paris. I would sit outside a cafe in Le Marais and drink coffee and eat a plate of warm croissants with unsalted butter and strawberry jam.

Paris for One for is a story collection, not a novel, but it’s well worth a read. The title story follows 26-year-old Nell on a solo journey to the city of light, if not love — at least not for her. After her boyfriend ditches her for their planned mini-vacation, she decides to see Paris on her own. Complications ensue.


Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust


This is the only novel written at a much earlier time, way back in 1913, but it feels even older since it’s set in the late 1800s. It’s also a novel I read at a much earlier time in my own life, so I include it mostly out of nostalgia (which seems fitting). It's a dense, slow read and I never made it through the other 6 volumes of “In Search of Lost Time.” Even so, Swann’s Way will always resonate with me, in part because of Proust’s beautiful, layered, meandering style. For me, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation is the only translation.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles


Another WWII novel, but honestly, I can’ t get enough of them. The Paris Library is based on another true story that involves, you guessed it, librarians.

As I mentioned in the opening of this piece, my list doesn’t scratch the surface of stunning novels set in Paris. Whichever novel you pick, reading about Paris is one of the best ways to “remember time” that I can think of, even if you’re not planning a visit.

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.


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