With Valentine’s Day around the corner, love reigns supreme as do powerful love stories. Meet-cutes, happily ever afters, tales of unrequited love—it’s intoxicating; we want it all and more. While love stories run the gamut from original to painfully predictable, successfully capturing the emotion on the page makes for an irresistible read. Whether you’re looking for the perfect Valentine’s gift for lovers of France, or want to fuel your own love of France, Paris-based writer Lauren Sarazen has offers up a variety of compelling literary love affairs set in Paris or France to top your recommended reading lists.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
It’s hard to imagine that Madame Bovary was Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel. Beautiful, superficial, and bored with her marriage, Emma Bovary dreams of irresistible passion. When she meets Rodolphe Boulanger, she throws caution to the winds. Exchanging ardent letters and risking discovery of their affair, the couple reaches a crossroads when Emma begs him to run away with her. France wasn’t ready for the novel in 1856, and Flaubert was prosecuted for producing obscene content. The trial, however, only invigorated public interest in the novel, making Madame Bovary a bestseller following Flaubert’s acquittal. Though Emma is criticized by modern readers, Flaubert’s love story remains a testament to the power of desire, and an irrefutable classic.
Chéri by Colette
When Courtesan Léa de Lonval agrees to take on the sexual education of her friend’s 19 year old son Fred, nicknamed Chéri, she’s fairly sanguine about their inevitable breakup. Flash forward six years: Léa is 49; Chéri is 25, and he’s leaving her for an arranged marriage to a rich young woman. Colette’s slim, 1920 novel picks up in the denouement of their affair, as the pair begin to realize the intense emotional impact of their six years together. Though Chéri comes across as spoiled and bratty, Colette’s beautiful descriptions of France’s demi-monde and the gender reversal of the typical May-December romance make Chéri worth snapping up. Celebrate finishing the book with a home screening of Stephen Frears’s film adaptation, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend.
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Scott Fitzgerald’s fourth novel Tender is the Night is perhaps his most poignant. When Rosemary Hoyt meets Nicole and Dick Diver on the beach, she’s taken with the glamorous and enigmatic couple. Stunning descriptions of the French Riviera give the story’s love triangle an idyllic setting for ruminations on love, infidelity and mental health—much of which is inspired by Zelda Fitzgerald’s nervous breakdown and their extramarital affairs. Published in 1934 when Fitzgerald’s career was already in decline, Tender is the Night became his last complete novel, and is now considered one of his finest works. Fitzgerald’s characteristically poetic style and romantic sensibilities make Tender is the Night a moving portrayal of love’s complexities.
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Published when Françoise Sagan was just 18, Bonjour Tristesse scandalized conservative 1950s society with its portrayal of a young girl rejecting sentimentality, immediately launching its young writer into the literary limelight. Sagan’s heroine Cécile spends the summer with her philandering father Raymond and his mistress in a villa on the Cote d’Azur. Sun-soaked and more than a little bored with studying to retake her baccalauréate, Cécile falls into a romance of her own with a local boy. Yet her bliss is shattered when her father’s superficial mistress is replaced by Cécile’s intellectual godmother, and her summer fling decides he loves her. Bonjour Tristesse’s appeal lies in its frank portrayal of sexual discovery, scheming, and bittersweet consequences.
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
Surprisingly modern and hilariously slapstick, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado is light on realism and heavy on hedonism. “Hellbent for living,” and supported by a steady current of money from her uncle, Sally Jay Gorce spends her days sleeping in and her nights gallivanting through a range of upscale cocktail lounges and bohemian cafés. We meet the pink-haired Sally Jay on Boulevard St. Michel, rocking an evening gown mid-morning, where she runs into Larry. Over Pernods at Café Dupont, she falls madly in love with him—her Italian lover be damned! While the plot is loose at best, and the “American in Paris” trope now well-worn, Sally Jay Gorse is absolutely unmissable.
Je T’Aime…Maybe by April Lily Heise
Ready for a little modern romance? Head straight for April Lily Heise’s second novel. Je T’Aime…Maybe capture Paris’s seductive allure: chance encounters, impossible situations, and the sweeping range of emotions brought on by a string of dating “maybes.” The book picks up where readers left off—smack in the middle of the heroine’s continuing romantic foibles. For fans of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City, Je T’Aime…Maybe’s strength lies in its ability to transcend romantic disappointment through humor. Inspired by the author’s own dating life, Heise’s chronicle of near misses makes for a light-hearted read.
Looking for more France or Paris themed books? Check out our reading list!
About the Author:
Lauren Sarazen graduated from Chapman University with a BFA in Creative Writing, and is currently pursuing a Master’s at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. Lauren has contributed articles for online publications such as Paste Magazine, LensCulture, and Teen Vogue. She currently lives in Paris. Catch up with her on her blog or Instagram.