The best books for understanding the French

Who am I?

I have been writing books about France and the French for two decades. The adventure began when I moved to Quebec in my early 20s and married a Quebecker. He became my life partner and co-author. I learned his language, immersed myself in Canada’s French-language culture and began writing articles in French. In 1999 we moved to France for three years to study the French. Three books later, we returned to Paris with our daughters to try to demystify French conversation. The result is The Bonjour Effect. I am grateful to the authors on my list for helping me refine my understanding of France, the French and their language. 

I wrote...

The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed

By Julie Barlow, Jean-Benoit Nadeau,

Book cover of The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed

What is my book about?

Why do the French start every sentence with “non”? Why do you get bad service if you don’t say “bonjour” first? Many travellers have shared the frustrations of communicating with the French, but few understand what makes the French so confounding. It’s the codes.

The Bonjour Effect unravels the mysteries of French conversation. To understand and speak French well, one must understand a set of rules that go to the heart of French culture. The Bonjour Effect takes readers beyond what the French are saying to explain what they actually mean. Through their encounters with French from all walks of life, the authors explain why, culturally and historically, conversation with the French is not about communicating or being nice. It's about being interesting. After reading The Bonjour Effect, readers who don’t speak French will be able to hold their own in French conversation. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of French or Foe?: Getting the Most Out of Visiting, Living and Working in France

Why did I love this book?

Polly Platt was the first author to write about the frustrating features of French in a way that would help foreigners deal with them. In this classic, first published in 1994, she delves into their intense relationship to food, explains how to handle rudeness in stores, how to deal with the French bureaucracy, how their idea of time can drive foreigners crazy and much more. Platt’s observations were eye-opening for me when I first moved to France and are still relevant 25 years later. 

By Polly Platt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked French or Foe? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Designed primarily for people who will be living or working in France for extended periods, offers lessons on French manners, attitudes, and culture.

Paris to the Moon

By Adam Gopnick,

Book cover of Paris to the Moon

Why did I love this book?

New Yorker Adam Gopnick’s memoir about life in Paris with his family is a great reminder of why we all became so enchanted with France, and the French, in the first place. The experiences are relatable, but the insights erudite enough to make you feel smart, and want to dig deeper. It’s a dreamy, vicarious immersion in the life of a sophisticated expatriate who grapples with all the quirks and paradoxes of the French capital and its inhabitants.

By Adam Gopnick,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Paris to the Moon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “The finest book on France in recent years.”—Alain de Botton, The New York Times Book Review
In 1995, Adam Gopnik, his wife, and their infant son left the familiar comforts and hassles of New York City for the urbane glamour of Paris. In the grand tradition of Stein, Hemingway, Baldwin, and Liebling, Gopnik set out to enjoy the storied existence of an American in Paris—walks down the paths of the Tuileries, philosophical discussions in cafés, and afternoon jaunts to the Musée d’Orsay. 
But as readers of Gopnik’s beloved and award-winning “Paris Journal” in The New…

Book cover of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (Now with Bébé Day by Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting)

Why did I love this book?

New York Times columnist Pamela Druckerman had a brilliant flash when she decided to zoom in on this particularly puzzling aspect of French civilization: how they raise their kids. Her book is entertaining, witty, and instructive enough that even readers without kids will enjoy, and learn from it. French parenting has its dark side (it’s authoritarian around the edges), and its inspiring side (French kids learn to speak properly to adults and they eat what they’re served). But most of all, as Druckerman shows, childhood and child-rearing explain so many puzzling features of French society.

By Pamela Druckerman,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Bringing Up Bébé as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"On questions of how to live, the French never disappoint. . . . Maybe it all starts with childhood. That is the conclusion that readers may draw from Bringing Up Bebe." -The Wall Street Journal

"I've been a parent now for more than eight years, and-confession-I've never actually made it all the way through a parenting book. But I found Bringing Up Bebe to be irresistible." -Slate

The runaway New York Times bestseller that shows American parents the secrets behind France's amazingly well-behaved children, from the author of There Are No Grown-ups.

When American journalist Pamela Druckerman had a baby…

Book cover of The Discovery of France

Why did I love this book?

Don’t be intimated by the academic-sounding title. This book just blew my mind. If you want to even begin understanding the French, you have to know where they came from. As Robb proves in this readable work, there is no better way to do this than by looking at French geography. France is a country that evolved out of surprisingly varied landscapes, ethnic origins, languages, and more. Understanding all the pieces of the puzzle, the great struggles that gathered them into a unified country, will forever change how you see the country.

By Graham Robb,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A narrative of exploration-full of strange landscapes and even stranger inhabitants-that explains the enduring fascination of France. While Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris, large parts of France were still terra incognita. Even in the age of railways and newspapers, France was a land of ancient tribal divisions, prehistoric communication networks, and pre-Christian beliefs. French itself was a minority language.

Graham Robb describes that unknown world in arresting narrative detail. He recounts the epic journeys of mapmakers, scientists, soldiers, administrators, and intrepid tourists, of itinerant workers, pilgrims, and herdsmen with their millions of migratory domestic animals. We learn…

Book cover of Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart

Why did I love this book?

Alexander’s book is a sort of memoir that recounts how, at a quite advanced age, he set out to become fluent in French. It’s funny, insightful, peppered with great observations, and has quite an amazing twist in the plot. His determination to master French – but also the research he explores about language learning in the process – will be inspiring for readers of all ages. A fun and motivating read.

By William Alexander,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Flirting with French as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

William Alexander is not just a Francophile, he wants to be French. It's not enough to explore the country, to enjoy the food and revel in the ambiance, he wants to feel French from the inside. Among the things that stand in his way is the fact that he can't actually speak the language. Setting out to conquer the language he loves (but which, amusingly, does not seem to love him back), Alexander devotes himself to learning French, going beyond grammar lessons and memory techniques to delve into the history of the language, the science of linguistics, and the art…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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