When you start reading in French, it’s good to start easy.
But what about after that?
It’s possible that many intermediate to advanced French learners fail to become fluent simply due to lack of material. They might glance at a page of Proust and think, “Nope, not there yet!” but see no clear alternative to fill in their time between now and the day they achieve fluency.
But what if the road to fluency was paved with books you could read for pleasure?
Why Reading in French is Crucial
Reading books helps solidify the material you’ve studied by introducing you to a constant stream of real usage examples. It’s one of the best ways to become fluent.
The biggest stumbling block to reading books is vocabulary. But reading books that are right for your current level will sharpen and add to your existing vocabulary. You can even learn a lot of words without looking up the definitions, simply through context. If that is too difficult for you, you can practice learning by context with FluentU videos, which are equipped with bilingual subtitles to ensure you have all the information you need to understand the content.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Similarly, reading is great for improving your grammar, as it allows you to see grammar in context as opposed to just hypothetical examples. If you’re enjoying a book, you’ll absorb the grammar without even thinking about it.
What French Books to Read
One of the most important rules in selecting books is to pick ones that aren’t too far beyond your current level. This will keep the experience challenging but enjoyable.
All of the following books should be accessible to a willing French learner who has read through some simpler classics like “Le Petit Prince” and “L’Étranger.” So if one of these piques your interest, go for it!
Whether or not you find a premise interesting is a matter of taste, but these works all offer a high level of engagement. Two of them fall into the category of classic mystery. Others have strong elements of suspense, or masterful language that encourages continued reading.
Once you get hooked on a book, you’ll find yourself hooked on French as well, and then it’s only a matter of time before you’re reading Proust with ease!
10 Best Books to Learn French: 10 Unbelievably Good Books for French Learners
1. “Hygiène de l’assassin” by Amélie Nothomb
This is a strange little book written almost entirely in dialogue. The story consists of different journalists interviewing a famous novelist, Prétextat Tach, who is dying. Tach, an obese, misogynistic monster of a man, is an unpleasant yet highly entertaining character. He makes a game of avoiding questions about his personal life and driving away his interviewers, among whom a contest develops to see who can dig up any interesting information on the novelist. The interactions between Tach and the interviewers make for fast and absorbing reading, and the mystery developing around Tach’s past and personality will keep you glued to the page.
2. “Un soir au club” by Christian Gailly
I had to include at least one French piano drama. If you continue to read in French or watch French movies, you’ll find a lot of stories in which some part of the plot hinges on a character’s ability or inability to play the piano. File this away for further investigation as you progress.
The protagonist of this drama, Simon Nardis, is a former jazz pianist and alcoholic who had to give up both habits to stay on the straight and narrow. In a single night, he breaks with years of abstinence and returns to his two loves. Written in sharp, snappy prose, “Un soir au club” reads like hot jazz and quickly draws you in with its seductive pace. Gailly often uses short sentence fragments for emphasis, which helps direct the reader’s attention to grammar and phrasing.
3. “Bonjour Tristresse” by Françoise Sagan
It’s difficult to find a comparison for Sagan in English-language literature. My mother, who lived in France in the sixties, gave me her copy of “Bonjour Tristesse” while shrugging it off as a silly, guilty pleasure. For this reason, I came to think of it as something along the lines of a trashy romance novel.
I was surprised to find it was a lot better than that. The plot centers on a teenage girl’s relationship with her womanizing father, and how his love life influences and becomes entangled with her own. It retains the fast pacing and quick gratification of a romance novel, but reads more like a soap opera condensed into novel form, and draws you in with charisma and personality.
4. “Pietr-le-Letton” by Georges Simenon
This novel by Simenon introduces Commissaire Maigret, who appears in many more novels and stories. By many, I mean more than a hundred. So if you develop a taste for following Maigret through his methodical, character-rich investigation processes, you’ll have taken on an excellent habit for your French learning.
The prose in this novel is still a little rough compared to the easy, relaxed pace Simenon developed in later works, but it familiarizes you with Maigret and Simenon in a story that takes the detective through a variety of locales in different social strata.
5. “Coule la Seine” by Fred Vargas
This collection of three mystery stories is a nice sampler to get you acquainted with another French detective, Commissaire Adamsberg, who appears in several Vargas novels. Vargas is a historian who incorporates her knowledge of history into her books, creating rich, eccentric characters who have the education necessary to make her plots play out in a satisfying way.
Every native English speaker learning French at some point encounters doubts as to whether what they’re doing is really useful. For this reason, you may find Vargas comforting. She creates characters who are armed with unexpected facts that end up applying to real-life situations. These tendencies are not all fully explored in this collection, but you’ll get an idea of Adamsberg’s personality as well as the charm of the style and characters you’ll find in the novels.
6. “L’Amant” by Marguerite Duras
This is a classic that is part of any basic education in French literature. Set in French colonial Vietnam, it tells the story of a young girl from a French family who becomes romantically involved with an older Chinese man. The plot is narrated from the detached point of view of a woman who is now much older and reflecting on the events related. The writing is hypnotic and simple to read. As in the case of Gailly’s “Un soir au club,” Duras often repeats words and events, which is good for poetic effect and great for learning.
7. “Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant
Another classic, this is a sparse moral and psychological drama. The story follows a young man who develops a relationship with an older woman. Narrated in the first person, “Adolphe” explores all of the inner misgivings and woes of the main character, who is highly self-analytical. The prose is mostly limited to Adolphe’s state of mind as well as his interactions with others, so the vocabulary and phrasing are efficient and fairly easy to follow despite the fact that the book was first published in 1816.
8. “Extension du domaine de la lutte” by Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq has become a highly controversial figure in France for writing characters with questionable social views and making offensive statements. Despite that, he’s someone to be aware of if you have any interest in contemporary French culture and literature. He’s a solid writer who can fill out your vocabulary on modern subjects such as dating, social politics, and the workplace. This is his first novel, and it encompasses and riffs on the dreariness of day-to-day societal existence in a way that comes across like Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” as told by Bill Hicks, but with a lot more French.
9. “Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes” by Jacqueline Harpman
If I describe this work as an existential, quasi-horror sci-fi novel, I’m speaking accurately but failing to assess its beautiful, haunting singularity. Narrated by a female character who was raised by a group of older women imprisoned in an undisclosed underground location, the reader is introduced to a world that is like this one but also distinctly different. The question of who the women’s captors are and why they are being held makes the story a mystery as well. Creepy, imaginative and rife with examples of the first person plural passé simple, Harpman’s novel is a dream for any speculative-fiction-loving French learner.
10. “Les Yeux jaunes des crocodiles” by Katherine Pancol
This is the longest and most difficult book on the list, but also one of the most useful for learning French. If you find it intimidating, work your way through a few others first and try coming back to it. Pancol writes with a light, sympathetic touch about members of a modern French family who follow separate ambitions and interests while still striving to love and support one another. The story has the appeal of an addictive television series that will keep you thinking about the characters when you’re not reading, and motivate you to get through the more difficult parts to find out what happens to them.
Poetry Bonus: “Paroles” by Jacques Prévert
If you’ve been studying French for a while, chances are you’ve already come across Prévert’s poetry. He’s a playful but serious poet, who used simple language and repetition to great effect. His style has the added bonus of setting aside little isolated blocks of French for you to read, memorize and, if you’re feeling ambitious, translate. Poetry in general is a great way to try your hand at translation, which will help your French even if translation isn’t something in which you have a particular interest.
French literature is a rich and varied world, and there are sure to be plenty of books out there that are right for you. As you continue to familiarize yourself with French books and authors, you’ll add to your cultural knowledge, which will enhance your relationship with the language. You’ll also have fun and give yourself immediate motivation to continue learning French.