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7 Heart-Stopping Love Stories Set in France

A French man had some wise words on recommending books. He said:

‘In general, people only ask for advice that they may not follow it, or if they should follow it, that they may have somebody to blame for having given it.’

Okay, Alexandre Dumas might not have been referring specifically to recommending books but he sure knew how to write a catchy line. Regardless, I stand ready to take the blame. Here follows a list of books about love, passionate love, faithful love, love between men and women, love between comrades, love between enemies, even the love of books, and all set in France where the language of love was invented. This list is chronological by year of setting so you can enjoy les histoires d’amour through the ages.

The Three Musketeers

‘Love is the most selfish of all the passions.’

Published in 1844 but set between 1625 and 1628, The Three Musketeers provides a fascinating insight into how the French readjusted their views of the monarchy. Early translations into English have been noted for their prudishness and unfair representation of Dumas’s romantic adventure story. It is worth reading a recent translation like this one by Richard Pevear published in 2006.

The Three Musketeers is the original swashbuckling adventure story. Our hero, d’Artagnan, is a poor young gentleman of noble birth who longs to enlist in the prestigious Musketeers of the Guard. He is befriended by three genuine, but aging, musketeers, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, who share a common enemy in Cardinal Richelieu.

D’Artagnan falls passionately in love with Constance, a maid to Queen Anne of France. Richelieu, however, has a dastardly plan to disgrace the Queen which puts Anne in grave danger. D’artagnan and the musketeers undertake to save the reputation of the queen and rescue Anne.

Dumas packs it all in, everything from political intrigue to passionate romance. This is a great read for those who like BIG books.

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Les Liaisons Dangereuses

‘When one woman strikes at the heart of another, she seldom misses, and the wound is invariably fatal.’

The cold and calculating Marquise de Merteuil asks her ex-lover to seduce a young girl in order to exact revenge upon the girl’s soon-to-be husband. What begins as a hilarious romp soon turns into a dark and cautionary tale of greed, lust and lovers scorned.

This epistolary novel was first published in 1782 under the pretence that it was a genuine, and scandalous, collection of letters between the protagonists whose names, it was suggested, had been altered to protect the identities of the innocent victims. This ingenious bit of marketing ensured a complete sell-out of the first edition. Even Marie Antoinette had a copy.

The letters are, by turns, wildly entertaining and appalling. The plot is convoluted but delightfully so. The author’s razor-sharp wit and terrifyingly credible characters make this a hugely satisfying read. 

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A Tale Of Two Cities

Just a few short years after the debauchery of Liaisons found Paris in turmoil. A Tale of Two Cities, first published in 1859 but set during the French Revolution, remains one of the best-selling, and most quoted, books of all time.

"Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!"

Lucie Manette is loved by three men. Her father Alexandre has endured eighteen years imprisonment in the Bastille and clings to his sanity by obsessively making shoes. Charles Darnay is a young French nobleman who forsakes his country and his title in disgust at the behaviour of the aristocracy. Sydney Carton is a cynical and dispirited barrister who happens to look uncannily like M. Darnay.

True, it is set in Paris and London but the most memorable scenes take place on French soil. A Tale of Two Cities is often cited as a novel about social injustice, of symbolic light and darkness, of sacrifice, martyrdom and redemption. For me, it is a cracking good story with the best of opening lines and the very best of closing lines.

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Birdsong

This is the second, and my favourite, of the author’s French Trilogy (the others are The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Charlotte Grey).

‘The function of music is to liberate in the soul feelings which normally we keep locked up in the heart.’

Sometimes, a good book will do that for you too.

The book shifts between three time periods. Before the beginning of World War 1 Stephen Wraysford travels to France on business where he meets and begins an illicit love affair with a married woman. Later, Stephen returns to France to fight at the Battle of the Somme. Later again, in the 1970s, we meet Stephen’s grand-daughter, a woman in her 30s, hoping to discover more about her ancestors.

This book excels in its harrowing depiction of trench warfare. Sebastian Faulks is unflinching, even merciless, in his descriptions of battles, wounds and wartime conditions. This is a haunting book about the triumph of the human spirit, of love, when all humanity seems lost.

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All the Light We Cannot See

‘So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?’

Werner is a bright boy growing up in an orphanage in Nazi Germany. He fixes an old radio and becomes entranced by a science program broadcast from France. His excellence at maths and science gain him a place at the Hitler Youth Academy.

Marie-Laure is a sweet and sensitive girl growing up in Paris. She loses her sight at the age of six but her father builds an intricate model of the city so that she can learn her way around by touch. When the Germans invade Paris Marie-Laure and her father escape to Saint-Malo until the war catches up with them and the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner converge.

The characters of this book are so convincingly drawn that I never for one moment doubted their real existence and raced, far too quickly, through the story to discover their fate.

This is a war story, and a coming-of-age story, and a book about finding courage and keeping it. It is not a stereotypical love story but I’m willing to bet it will make your heart beat faster.

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The Little Paris Bookshop

‘We cannot decide to love. We cannot compel anyone to love us. There’s no secret recipe, only love itself. And we are at its mercy – there’s nothing we can do.’

Jean Perdu owns a floating bookstore on a barge on the Seine from which he dispenses books, as medicine, to the sad, lonely and broken-hearted. What more romantic setting could you imagine for any book? Seriously, what more do you need to know?

Nineteen years ago, Perdu lost the love of his life when she abandoned him leaving nothing more than a letter which he couldn’t bear to read.

We catch up with M. Perdu just as a new neighbour turns up who leads him to finally read the letter. The contents, as unbearable as he imagined, prompt Perdu to cast off his moorings, figuratively and literally, and embark on a journey through the waterways of France.

The Little Paris Bookshop is a charming story about enduring love and believing in books.

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Tender is the Night

A bleak story about an alcoholic psychiatrist and his neurotic wife-- it doesn’t sound like an up-lifting read and, truthfully, it isn’t. But, Fitzgerald believed this novel, the last he completed, was his finest work which alone must make it worth reading.

Dick Diver, the psychiatrist, and his beautiful wife, Nicole, meet Rosemary Hoyt, an up-and-coming actress, on holiday in the South of France. Things get complicated when a dead man turns up in Rosemary’s bed and Dick moves the body to save her reputation.

The novel was published in 1934 and written while Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, was hospitalised with a diagnoses of schizophrenia. Tender is the Night holds an unforgiving mirror up to the Fitzgerald’s own faltering marriage, Zelda’s mental illness, Scott’s affair with a Hollywood starlet and his perception of professional failure.

‘She smiled at him, making sure that the smile gathered everything inside her and directed it toward him, making a profound promise of herself for so little, for the beat of a response, the assurance of a complimentary vibration in him.’

Whatever Fitzgerald’s perception, it is his achingly beautiful writing that will stop your heart.

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Should these recommendations fail to stop your heart, you might ungratefully return to complain. In which case I shall borrow again the words of that wise Frenchman:

‘Be kind, aim for my heart.’

Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More

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