The best French novels of the 19th century

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been a Francophile for as long as I can remember. Something about France and French literature grabbed me by the heart when I was a young man and continues to do so. I’ve lived in France twice–a year each time–and have written about those experiences in books and essays. It’s 19th-century French literature that especially draws me and has deeply influenced my own writing.  

I wrote...

French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France

By Richard Goodman,

Book cover of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France

What is my book about?

I lived for a year in a small village outside of time in the South of France. The village was so small that it didn’t have a cafe or shop. The population was 211 souls. While I was there, I had a vegetable garden. Every day, when I came back from working in the Provençal sun, I wrote about what I saw.

My book is the result of those days spent digging and planting, hoping and despairing. It’s about the villagers I met and the help, advice and caution they gave me. It’s a book about sun, light, work, sweat and the sublime pleasure of working the French soil, alone and happy, day after glorious day.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of L'Assommoir

Richard Goodman Why did I love this book?

I read this book many years ago, and it’s never left me. This was my first exposure in literature to the harsh lives some people must live. It seems a bit strange to me that it was a French novel published in 1877 that opened my eyes, but there you are.

You can feel the sweat, exhaustion, and desperation of this fated Parisian laundress, Gervaise, as she tries to rise above her situation, only to be tragically brought down by the men in her life. Zola’s writing is often categorized as naturalism, but I think "truth" is more accurate.

By Émile Zola, Brian Nelson (translator), Robert Lethbridge (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked L'Assommoir as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

b 'in this life, even if you don't ask for much you still end up with bugger all!' /b

In a run-down quarter of Paris, Gervaise Macquart struggles to earn a living and support her family. She earns a pittance washing other people's dirty clothes in the local washhouse, and dreams of having her own laundry. But in order to start her business she must incur debt, and her feckless husband cannot resist the lure of the Assommoir, the local bar that supplies all the working men with cheap spirits and absinthe. As her money troubles grow, so Gervaise's life…

Book cover of Sentimental Education

Richard Goodman Why did I love this book?

Most people declare Madame Bovary to be their favorite Flaubert novel. I don’t dispute its greatness, but I find this book, published in 1869, twelve years after Madame Bovary, to be the master at his most illuminating and embracing.

Set against the revolution of 1848, the hero, Frédéric Moreau, falls helplessly in love with a married woman. I identify—not with the love of a married woman—with Moreau’s life and times as a young artist living among others like him in Paris. He and his fellow artists live their bohemian lives with ardor and hope, and the passion of youth and creativity flows wonderfully through the book.

By Gustave Flaubert, Helen Constantine (translator), Patrick Coleman (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sentimental Education as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'For certain men the stronger their desire, the less likely they are to act.'

With his first glimpse of Madame Arnoux, Frederic Moreau is convinced he has found his romantic destiny, but when he pursues her to Paris the young student is unable to translate his passion into decisive action. He also finds himself distracted by the equally romantic appeal of political action in the turbulent years leading up to the revolution of 1848, and by the attractions of three other women, each of whom seeks to make him her own: a haughty society lady, a capricious courtesan, and an…

Book cover of Les Misérables

Richard Goodman Why did I love this book?

We all know the title. It’s become a record-breaking musical phenomenon. The book is a phenomenon in itself. It was a voyage I took for a few spellbound weeks, and I read it in a stone house in a small village in the South of France. It is a book of great sympathy and grace. 

Victor Hugo’s heart is large—at least measured by this story of an escaped prisoner who tries to do good with his life but is pursued relentlessly by a police officer, Javert. I found with this book, as the great writers always show me, that character is all. Hugo drew me into the struggles and losses of his people so ably and memorably that I still think of them years later. 

By Victor Hugo, Lee Fahnestock (translator), Norman Macafee (translator)

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Les Misérables as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


The only completely unabridged paperback edition of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece—a sweeping tale of love, loss, valor, and passion.

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose.

Within his dramatic story are…

Book cover of Père Goriot

Richard Goodman Why did I love this book?

Balzac wrote some 90 novels in a fury of creativity, dying at only 51. I haven’t read all 90 or even close to them, but of those I have, this book is by far my favorite. (I’m not alone. It was Henry James’ favorite, as well.) 

Set in a seamy boarding house in Paris around 1820, it’s the story of a father’s love for his two social-climbing daughters who let their father see them rarely and then only for his money. I’ve never read anything like this depiction of a father’s love, desperate and ever-hopeful—a man who lives in reduced circumstances so he can save every penny to give his ungrateful daughters.  

By Honoré de Balzac, A. J. Krailsheimer (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Père Goriot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the tragic story of a father whose obsessive love for his two daughters leads to his financial and personal ruin. It is set against the background of a whole society driven by social ambition and lust for money. The detailed descriptions of both affluence and squalor in the Paris of 1819 are an integral part of the drama played out by a wide range of characters, including the sinister but fascinating Vautrin. Unquestionably one of Balzac's finest novels, Pere Goriot still has the power to move the modern reader.
ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World's…

Book cover of The Red and the Black

Richard Goodman Why did I love this book?

I read this book years ago in high school, and my eyes were opened. The hero, Julien Sorel, is—like I was when I read the novel—naïve, confused, trusting, inexperienced, and prone to awkwardness and error. In short, I could relate to someone in circumstances (boarding school!) where I desperately needed someone who was highly imperfect with whom I could identify.

It might have been the first time I read an adult book where I felt I might actually meet the main character one day, walking down the street or even in the hallway.

By Stendhal,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Red and the Black as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Traces the ascent and descent of a young, aspirational social climber in a harsh, monarchical country.

Julien Sorel, a handsome and aspirational man, is determined to overcome his lowly provincial upbringing. He soon realises that the only way to succeed is to follow the sophisticated code of hypocrisy that governs society, so he starts to progress by lying and self-interest. His successful job leads him into the centre of glitzy Parisian society, where he triumphs over the proud Mathilde and the kind, married Madame de Rênal. Then, though, Julien commits a shocking, terrible crime—leading to his own demise. In The…

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Book cover of Returning to Eden

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

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A dead man stands on her doorstep.

When the Navy wrote off her MIA husband as dead, Eden came to terms with being a widow. But now, her Navy SEAL husband is staring her in the face. Eden knows she should be over-the-moon, but she isn’t.

Diagnosed with PTSD and amnesia, Navy SEAL Jonah Mills has no recollection of their fractured marriage, no memory of Eden nor her fourteen-year-old daughter. Still, he feels a connection to both.

Unfit for active duty and assigned to therapy, Jonah knows he has work to do and relies on God, who sustained him during captivity, to heal his mind, body, and hopefully his family.

But as the memories lurking in his wife's haunted eyes and behind his daughter's uncertain smile begin to return to him, Jonah makes another discovery. There is treachery in the highest ranks of his Team, treachery that not only threatens him but places his new-found family in its crosshairs.

Returning to Eden

By Rebecca Hartt,

What is this book about?

Presumed Dead, Navy SEAL Returns Without Memory of His Ordeal in the Christian Romantic Suspense, Returning to Eden, by Rebecca Hartt

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A dead man stands at Eden Mills' door.

Declared MIA a year prior, the Navy wrote him off as dead. Now, Eden's husband, Navy SEAL Jonah Mills has returned after three years to disrupt her tranquility. Diagnosed with PTSD and amnesia, he has no recollection of their marriage or their fourteen-year-old step-daughter. Still, Eden accepts her obligation to nurse Jonah back to health while secretly longing to regain her freedom, despite the…

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