9 Compulsively Readable French Books for the Modern Learner
Sick of Stendhal?
Bored of Balzac?
Can’t even Chateaubriand?
As a reader and learner of French, it’s not uncommon to get burnt out on or just plain tired of the classics sometimes.
Sometimes, no matter how much interest you have in French, it can feel impossible to continue struggling through those old-fashioned books.
It’s like learning about the subjunctive. After the end of a hard working week full of long and tiring days, the last thing you feel like doing is committing a few hours to grammar study.
Luckily, French isn’t all about hard rules, complicated sentence structures and old literary masters.
There’s loads of great contemporary French writing out there, waiting to be read and enjoyed by you!
It’s time to get immersed in some fresh, interesting books that won’t have you reaching for the dictionary every five seconds.
You might just learn something new along the way, too.
In with the New: 9 Modern French Books for Learners Looking to Change It Up
1. “Petits contes sympathiques”
First, here’s a warmup book for less advanced readers: Made up of humorous dialogues, short stories and illustrations, “Petits contes sympathiques” is a great read for beginner to intermediate level readers and is easy to dip in and out of on the go.
The stories are presented in basic French, are incredibly easy to get your head around and follow repetitive patterns and dialogues. If you’re looking to get some insight into real French speech before diving into the full-length books below, this a great option.
As well as being able to dip in and out of the stories at your own leisure, you’ll also have access to a few learning exercises at the back of the book relating to the content.
If you’re looking for a lightweight, upbeat read with real examples of French conversation and speaking patterns, “Petits contes sympathiques” is a good place to start.
2. “Zazie dans le métro”
A hugely popular French book by Raymond Queneau, “Zazie dans le métro” tells the story of a pre-teen who temporarily runs away from her uncle and explores Paris on her own. The main character, Zazie, is a great central protagonist and her temporary adventure in the capital city will make you think of the first time you visited the City of Lights—or, indeed, make you want to visit! The book is known for its verbal delights and consistently humorous tone; seen through Zazie’s eyes, the city (and the world) is a genuinely delightful place.
The book was also made into a very popular film by Louis Malle in 1960 and is a great representation of the city and French life at the time. Set amidst great cultural change, “Zazie dans le métro” shows a girl gaining independence. A light and upbeat read, this book is a wonderful way into contemporary French literature.
3. “L’amour dure trois ans”
One of the most successful works of writer Frédéric Beigbeder’s career, “L’amour dure trois ans” tells the story of Marc Marronnier, a shallow, superficial and rich Parisian in the midst of a divorce. He tells the reader—through a series of flashbacks and memories—of his theory that love only lasts three years and anything beyond that is something that we lie to ourselves about.
Both frightening and funny in equal parts, the book reads like a diary, and you’ll find yourself lost in the bizarre episodes of Marc’s life, living through his thoughts and imagination. The book has been a huge success both in France and abroad. With Beigbeder’s witty, cutting, poignant and hilarious prose, you’ll forget that you’re even learning French.
4. “Bonjour tristesse”
Okay, so this one is a bit older than the others on this list, but it’s arguably a major modern classic, portraying a scathing account of French society and the unspoken presence of love affairs and scandal within it. When “Bonjour tristesse” was released in the mid-1950s, it became an overnight success.
Written by author Françoise Sagan when she was only 18, the novel speaks frankly about sex and relationships. The plot follows a young woman and her philandering father, who embarks on superficial affair after superficial affair. Soon, however, he becomes wrapped up in a serious relationship.
While the characters aren’t the most likeable in the world, they’re real and fully-rounded. “Bonjour tristesse” will have you hooked on the drama from the get-go, with the relationships between characters changing at every moment.
5. “La délicatesse”
You might know David Foenkinos’ novel “La délicatesse” as “Delicacy,” the hugely popular English-language release of the book. Telling the story of a widow who finds love in the most unlikely of places, “La délicatesse” is a gentle love story that will have you intrigued from the beginning.
After her husband dies, main character Natalie shuts herself off from any potential affection, and it’s only when she meets a man who represents the opposite of her former love that she is able to feel something again.
The novel was so popular in its native country that it was nominated for a slew of literary awards, became a top seller and was even turned into a popular film, helmed by the irresistable Audrey Tautou. The novel reads like a mystery, and as a reader, you only have as much of a clue about the central character as the men around her do. Getting involved in the story is like peeling away layers of mystery and finding the truth.
6. “Le scaphandre et le papillon”
Released in English under the name “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Le scaphandre et le papillon” is a heartbreaking and poignant memoir, penned by journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. The book speaks about Bauby’s experience of having a stroke, describing his life before the event and going into the details of his feelings of entrapment afterwards.
After suffering the stroke, Bauby experienced locked-in syndrome and was only able to move his eyes. Remarkably, the entire book was written by Bauby himself, who communicated through blinking his eyes with someone transcribing, and took over 10 months to complete. The book was an instant success and, unsurprisingly, became a bestseller in France and abroad. The nature of the content is poignant and undeniably moving. In his own words, Bauby describes his condition with complete poise and grace.
7. “Métaphysique des tubes”
If you’ve ever felt like an outsider in a country, then “Métaphysiques des tubes” is a book for you. Said to be an autobiographical account, this story by Amélie Nothomb follows the life and awareness of a three-year-old child born in Japan to a Belgian family. The story is incredibly self-reflective, philosophical and pensive and will really get you thinking about the world around you.
The Japanese believe that until the age of three, a child is like a god, and on its third birthday, will fall from grace and exist amongst the human race. The novel follows this idea, showing how the main character comes to understand the world and all of the elements within it. This story will probably be unlike anything you’ve ever come across before, and it might make you start to see things a little differently.
8. “Le liseur du 6h27”
“Le liseur du 6h27” is a concise read by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent that will have you gripped from the beginning. The novel follows Guylain, a 36-year-old man trapped in a mundane job, living alone and depressed by his prospects. Each morning, he reads out sections of books to other passengers on the RER to alleviate his boredom. One morning, however, he discovers a flash drive lost on the train that contains the story of Julie, a washroom attendant.
“Le liseur du 6h27” is notable for its use of witty, cutting prose and its existential angst. The feelings of monotony and lifelessness within Guylain are something to which many of us can relate in the modern world, and the book highlights the importance of a rich internal life to survival. “Le liseur du 6h27″ is funny, scathing at times and poignant; prepare to whip through it very quickly.
9. “Vol 1618”
“Vol 1618” is a mysterious novel by Bertrand Puard that has gripped readers of French all over the world. Mid-flight, an airplane heading to San Francisco from Paris disappears from the radar, sparking international panic. A few hours later, however, the plane turns up again—only four passengers are mysteriously missing from the aircraft. “Vol 1618” is packed with mystery and then some, and if you aren’t hooked right off by this novel, something’s not right!
The book speaks to the human obsession with conspiracy and mystery, and over the course of the story, intrigue is piled upon intrigue.
If you’re looking for something current in French that will entertain, shock and surprise, “Vol 1618” is the perfect place to start.
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Why Read Modern French Books?
They’re chock-full of great vocabulary points
The people who choose to write books these days normally know a thing or two about the current language, so if you’re looking to improve your comprehension skills while getting involved in an interesting plot line, modern books are the way forward. If you pick up a book that was written more recently, you’ll get access to the kind of vocabulary you’re more likely to encounter in real life.
As language points show up naturally in dialogue and paragraphs, you can actually see how and when to use particular grammar structures and vocabulary.
You can lose yourself in the plotlines
There’s nothing quite like losing yourself in a good book, and you may be more interested in characters and plots that more closely resemble you and your own life. If you can tie them into a French lesson, better still.
When we read really absorbing books, we become completely shut off from the world around us and, as a result, pay more attention to the words on the page. After reading a few chapters, you might find yourself wanting to live within the book and to find out what happens to the characters in the end, and that can only benefit your French.
They’ll improve your comprehension skills
Again, contemporary books will expose you to contemporary language. When learning, the more frequently that we do something, the more natural it becomes to us. Getting involved in a really good book means that whenever we have free time, we’ll more than likely feel compelled to continue the story.
If you can manage to read frequently, this will help your brain adjust to sentence structures and become more familiar with tense endings, obscure verbs and different terms of address. It’s a win-win.
There’s something out there for everyone
To take a step back for a moment, the history of French literature is vast, and that variety is reflected in the world of today’s French books. There have been many different literary movements, and much like current fashion trends, novel topics tend to go in and out of fashion.
While literature of the 19th and earlier 20th century was very much affected by historical and political movements as well as philosophical and artistic crises in society, modern French literature has focused on identity crises within national and personal spheres and the fate of individuals, among lots of other topics. Romances, thrillers, personal memoirs and books on all kinds of subjects are common in France’s literature of today.
So if you’re picky about what you read, you’ll still have no problem finding a book to satisfy your needs within the realm of modern French literature.
France is a leading translator of world literature, so if you have a favorite book in your native tongue, it’s probable that it’s already being published in French. Aside from that, there’s a huge variety of different original books on offer in French and shelf-loads of incredible texts out there in every single genre.
It’s a break for your brain
While reading in a different language is certainly a learning exercise, getting involved in stories that are completely removed from our everyday lives (but still close enough that we don’t have to struggle to understand) is a great means of escapism. Shutting off from the world around you after a week of stress is a perfect way to relax, and if you’re learning something at the same time, it can only be a bonus.
Of course, when we think of French literature, it often brings up images of old French masters, stuffy texts and incomprehensible vocabulary points.
But there’s another side to reading in French, and currently, contemporary literature is really worth getting behind. Unlike more “traditional” French books, the novels on this list have been chosen for their ability to entertain and inform readers at the same time.
Spanning genres such as mystery, romance and thriller, modern French literature is incredibly popular (both in and out of France) and very easy to access.
We’ve chosen books that entertain, so you can expect to get hooked on the plotlines!
Getting invested in these contemporary novels will make learning feel like fun, encourage you to read in French more frequently and might even inspire you to read more works by the authors mentioned. Remember, when you get enjoyment out of something, you’re much more likely to remember it and, therefore, learn.
So grab one or more of the books on this list, and start reading!
And one more thing...
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FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews, documentary excerpts and web series, as you can see here:
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