The best novels by French women

Catherine Cusset Author Of Life of David Hockney
By Catherine Cusset

Who am I?

I am a French novelist, the author of fifteen novels, many of which are memoirs, so I am considered a specialist of "autofiction" in France, of fiction written about oneself. But I also love writing about others, as you can see in my novel on David Hockney. Beauvoir, Sarraute and Ernaux were my models, Laurens and Appanah are my colleagues. Three of the books I picked would be called memoirs in the States, and the other two novels. In France, they are in the same category. All these women write beautifully about childhood and womanhood. I love their writing because it is both intimate and universal, full of emotion, but in a very sober and precise style. 


I wrote...

Life of David Hockney

By Catherine Cusset, Teresa Fagan (translator),

Book cover of Life of David Hockney

What is my book about?

A biography written like a novel, Life of David Hockney offers an insightful overview of a painter whose art is as accessible as it is compelling. Born in 1937 in the North of England, Hockney had to fight to become an artist and moved to the States in the sixties. A figurative painter when abstract art was in fashion, he became very successful before the age of 40 but continued experimenting with new forms, including technology. Even during the AIDS epidemic years, his passion to create was never deterred by heartbreak, illness, or loss. This meticulously researched novel draws an intimate, moving portrait of the most famous British painter alive.

The books I picked & why

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A Girl's Story

By Annie Ernaux, Alison L. Strayer (translator),

Book cover of A Girl's Story

Why this book?

In A Girl’s Story Annie Ernaux – the author of many memoirs about her parents, her lower-class background, and her sexual life – revisits the summer when she was 18 and a summer camp counselor. For the first time away from home, she was so eager for love that she ended up pursuing a man who dumped and humiliated her. Ernaux has a unique way to find lost time again. She scrutinizes the past with such a precise scalpel that it allows us to identify with the lost young girl and to share her confusion and shame. 


The Woman Destroyed

By Beauvoir Simone De,

Book cover of The Woman Destroyed

Why this book?

Abandonment and the end of love terrify me. In The Woman Destroyed, the happy diary of a fifty-year-old woman turns into a descent into hell when Beauvoir's narrator finds out that her husband is having an affair and is actually leaving her. Beauvoir wrote it in order to send a feminist message to women in the fifties, to convince them to get a job and define their identity outside their family life. I wonder, however, whether the intensity of the grief we feel in that novella wasn't experienced by Beauvoir herself the summer when her American lover, the novelist Nelson Algren, broke up their transcontinental passion of four years. 


Childhood

By Nathalie Sarraute, Barbara Wright (translator),

Book cover of Childhood

Why this book?

This book is so subtle and intelligent that it makes me smile at almost every line. Sarraute hates nothing more than clichés and the narcissistic self-indulgence of memoirs. In Childhood, the inner dialogue between the narrator and her memory allows her to avoid these pitfalls and resurrect the past with an amazing emotional accuracy. The questions asked by her critical self deepen her memory and lead to a delicate, vivid, and funny rendering of her childhood at the beginning of the twentieth century in Paris between her divorced Russian parents.


Tropic of Violence

By Nathacha Appanah,

Book cover of Tropic of Violence

Why this book?

I was immediately engaged in the story of a nurse who follows a man to Mayotte and, unable to conceive, adopts a child whom she brings up by herself after the man abandons her. She dies abruptly, however, and the story changes completely, turning into an intense, violent novel about children in the slums. The orphan who fled after his mother's death is horribly abused by another young teenager who is a gang leader, and can free himself only by killing him in the end. I am in awe of Nathacha Appanah for her ability to capture the voice of street children. This is a poignant, powerful, and beautifully written novel about harassment, cruelty, and possession. 


Girl

By Camille Laurens, Adriana Hunter (translator),

Book cover of Girl

Why this book?

Even though I never felt badly treated for growing up as a girl in a patriarchal world as Camille Laurens did, I loved her book. The first part, which starts with the sentence “It’s a girl,” recounts her childhood in a provincial French town in the sixties, where sexism still reigns. The distressing second part describes the loss of her son at birth. The third part is about her relationship with her daughter — born after the lost son — who, in spite of her mother's best efforts, grew up as a tomboy. The novel cleverly ends when the daughter, 16, tells her mom who asks whether her date is a nice boy: “It’s a girl.” This novel is also the most fascinating book about genre. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, orphans, and childhood?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, orphans, and childhood.

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