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French-themed books to read in February 2021

This month's round-up featuring a biography of the most celebrated French storyteller of the nineteenth century and an historical fiction on Coco Chanel

Guy de Maupassant - Christopher Lloyd

Reaktion Books, €13.29 ISBN: 9781789141979

Guy de Maupassant was and remains the most celebrated French storyteller of the nineteenth century, both in France and internationally.

So states Christopher Lloyd, emeritus professor of French at Durham University in the UK, in his thorough biography of the writer. It is part of a series of biographies by Reaktion Books called Critical Lives.

De Maupassant wrote over 300 short stories in his lifetime and aside from William Shakespeare, has inspired the most movie adaptations. It has been said of the French writer that he is the greatest master of the short story in world literature.

Lloyd’s biography delves into de Maupassant’s life and explores his key works and influences. It is the only biography of the writer available in English. In the same vein as de Maupassant’s writing style, this biography is succinct and precise.

It is divided into seven chapters, each exploring a different facet of de Maupassant’s character, such as “journalist”, “writer”, “storyteller”, “ironist”.

Through telling de Maupassant’s story, Lloyd weaves in elements of life in 19th century France and places de Maupassant’s writing in the context of other famous literary characters’ work, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert.

This biography offers a clear picture of the writer for anyone new to De Maupassant and also enough complexities to add more depth of understanding for those more familiar with his work.

The Hanged Man - Andrée Rushton

The Book Guild Publishing, €10 ISBN: 9781913208752

A death, a mystery, a flower, a holiday-home and war. All these elements are wrapped together in Andrée Rushton’s second novel, set in a village in the southwest of France.

A group of British friends buy a holiday home together in idyllic Castignac, a fictional village. But when one of them dies in an accident at the house, they decide to sell up. All except Tess, who believes there is more to the house than meets the eye.

Through her investigation, the story leaps back and forth from present day to the Second World War, combining history with suspense as a mystery slowly unfolds for the reader.

It is all wrapped up in the discovery of an orchid growing near to the house, the flowers of which resemble a hanged man.

This book will definitely speak to any British people with second homes in France – the author’s love of the country and the freedom and joy that France’s countryside can offer shine through in this story.

Rushton said, “I belonged to a group of British people who owned a house in the Ariège near the French Pyrenees for twenty years and I love the countryside there with its mountain views, valleys and abundance of wildflowers.”

Her novel may be dark at times and heavy with history, but ultimately this is a fascinating tale whose real main character is France itself.

The Chanel Sisters - Judithe Little

Graydon House, €19 ISBN: 9781525806384

This historical fiction charts the life of France’s most famous fashion icon, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, from her early days in an orphanage to her adulthood of stardom.

The book is written entirely from the point of view of Coco’s sister, Antoinette, of which not much is known compared to her famous sister.

It charts the sisters’ desperate struggle out of poverty through any means necessary. Often, this is the attention of rich men. In this sense the book blends romance with history and sprinkles elements of fashion and fame and takes the readers through the glitzy world of Paris.

Chanel’s life, while truly exceptional, is not without controversy after she was accused of collaborating with the Nazi’s during World War Two. This book slightly glosses over this aspect of Chanel’s history - it is mentioned in the author’s note - but that does detract from the intrigue contained in the book’s pages.

Whether you come away from this book with new respect for Coco Chanel or not is beside the point. She is a fascinating subject for fiction and this book brings her once again to life.

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