Books, the French Riviera and travelling, 3 of my favourite things. So books set in the French Riviera are ideal reading material for me. I’m a voracious reader and devour all books that take place in my adopted homeland, the Côte d’Azur. And there are a great deal of them as this part of France has long attracted writers, with many of the world’s greatest authors finding inspiration here.
I’m also devoted to reading books set in a destination before I travel as I strongly believe that reading before travelling somewhere greatly enriches your understanding of a place. And by this I don’t just mean travel guides or even travel literature. I mean fictional stories set in the location. They add another dimension to your travel.
If travelling isn’t possible what better than to fuel your wanderlust by reading books set in foreign lands (or another part of your own country). Getting lost in a book and escaping to a far-off place is a wonderful indulgence, the perfect antidote to stressful times.
If you’re planning a trip to the south of France or just dreaming about it, have a browse of these novels I’ve chosen and let yourself be swept away from the day-to-day. There is something for everyone in this list of books set in various parts of the French Riviera, covering romance to thrillers, literary classics to chicklit, and crime to humour, by a selection of French, Belgian, American, Irish, Canadian, British, Brazilian and German writers.
Books set in Antibes Juan-les-Pins in the French Riviera
Cooking For Picasso by Camille Aubray
This book centres around a true but little–known snippet of Picasso’s life. In 1936, his life was in complete turmoil and he stopped painting. His wife had discovered that his mistress had given birth to a daughter and she started divorce proceedings. Stressed out, the artist secretly left Paris travelling under his father’s surname, Ruiz, to remain anonymous. This mysterious Monsieur Ruiz rented a villa in Juan–les–Pins. A year later Picasso painted his masterpiece Guernica.
No one knows for sure what happened during this reclusive interlude in Picasso’s life but Camille Aubray uses it to create her fictional story in which Picasso hires a young cook Ondine. They develop a friendship, inspiring each other. The narrative cuts between Ondine’s story and that of her American granddaughter, Céline, (in modern times) who is searching for the truth about her grandmother and a lost family painting. Evocative descriptions of Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, the Riviera countryside and plenty of luscious Provençal food transport you to the south of France for an easy holiday read.
Tender is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tender is the Night is probably the most well-known book of all time set on the Riviera, a modern classic. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose is hauntingly evocative of the Jazz Age and it is impossible to separate him and his wife Zelda from the characters in this semi-autobiographical novel. Descriptions of the Cap d’Antibes, its beauty and its magnificent villas form the backdrop to the decadent lifestyle of the American expatriate community in love with the south of France.
Set in Antibes Juan-les-Pins in the late 1920s, Tender Is the Night is the “tragic tale of a young actress, Rosemary Hoyt, and her complicated relationship with the alluring American couple Dick and Nicole Diver. A brilliant psychiatrist at the time of his marriage, Dick is both husband and doctor to Nicole, whose wealth pushed him into a glamorous lifestyle, and whose growing strength highlights Dick’s decline.” (Amazon)
Villa America by Liza Klaussmann
“A dazzling novel set in the French Riviera based on the real-life inspirations for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is The Night. On the coast of Antibes (Sara and Gerald Murphy) built Villa America, a fragrant paradise where they invented summer on the Riviera for a group of bohemian artists and writers who became deeply entwined in each other’s affairs. There, in their oasis by the sea, the Murphys regaled their guests and their children with flamboyant beach parties, fiery debates over the newest ideas, and dinners beneath the stars.
It was, for a while, a charmed life, but these were people who kept secrets, and who beneath the sparkling veneer were heartbreakingly human. When a tragic accident brings Owen, a young American aviator who fought in the Great War, to the south of France, he finds himself drawn into this flamboyant circle, and the Murphys find their world irrevocably, unexpectedly transformed.” Barnes and Noble
It is not until the second half of the novel that the story moves to the Cap d’Antibes and the infamous Villa America, the location for wild decadent gatherings of the Murphy’s and their famous friends (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Picasso, Cole Porter and others). However, once there, the author captures the hedonism and drama of the times and the beauty of the Riviera setting with her evocative writing.
Promises to Keep by Patricia Sands
This is the second part of Love in Provence trilogy, a series of romances set in the French Riviera, mainly based around Antibes. It works as a stand-alone book in itself though I imagine reading the prequel and sequel would enrich the story.
Synopsis from author Patricia Sands: “Falling in love with the south of France was no surprise to Katherine. Choosing to walk away from her past and start over was completely unexpected. A new country, a new lover, and the promise of a bright future beginning in mid-life … who knew? Now there were the exciting dreams of restoring the property on the Cap, of beginning a new career, of experiencing the traditions of Christmas in Provence, of falling even more deeply in love with the man who inspired these hopes. It was all so perfect, until it wasn’t.”
Read a full review of Promises to Keep by French Village Diaries.
Maigret on The Riviera by Georges Simenon
One of the greatest of (written in) French crime writers is (the Belgian) George Simenon. In Maigret on The Riviera “his famed detective Maigret must resist the beguiling vistas of the resort paradise of Antibes to concentrate on the murder of William Brown, a retired Australian sheep rancher. For 10 years after deserting his wife and children, Brown had lived with his mistress Gina Martini and her meddlesome mother. Maigret discovers that Brown got money regularly from his son Harry, manager of the family business. When the two women divulge that their late “protector” periodically disappeared and squandered the checks on drink, Maigret traces Brown to a sleazy bar where he finds two more women in the dead man’s life, overdressed, Fat Jaja and a young prostitute named Sylvie. Maigret resorts to his fine-tuned intuitions to solve this unerringly told mystery.” From Publisher Weekly
The action takes us on a journey through the Riviera from the luxurious surrounds of Cap d’Antibes and its exclusive villas, to the back streets of Cannes. If you like a good old-fashioned crime novel, this is an easy read with a French flair.
Books set in Cannes and Monaco
The Winner Stands Alone by Paulo Coelho
The Winner Stands Alone is a novel by Portuguese writer Paulo Coelho, set during the most glamorous of French Riviera events, the Cannes Film Festival. The action takes place over a period of 24 hours in a fast-paced thriller that makes fun of modern day society’s obsession with celebrity and money.
From Wikipedia “the loosely connected plot tells the story of several individuals: Igor, a psychopathic Russian mobile phone mogul; Ewa, formerly Igor’s wife but now married to Hamid, a Middle Eastern fashion magnate; Jasmine, an African woman on the brink of a successful modeling career; American actress Gabriela, eager to land a leading film role; and an ambitious criminal detective, hoping to resolve the case of his life.”
Operation Sunshine by Jenny Colgan
A light-hearted “perfect sun-lounger read” (Heat, see photo above!) from best-selling author, Jenny Colgan, who used to live in the French Riviera. Set in Cannes, the plot is pretty silly but it’s an easy holiday read best accompanied by a glass of chilled rosé!
“Evie needs a good holiday. Not just because she’s been working all hours in her job, but also because every holiday she has ever been on in her life has involved sunburn, arguments and projectile vomiting – sometimes all three at once. Why can’t she have a normal holiday, like other people seem to have?
So when her employers invite her to attend a conference with them in the south of France, she can’t believe her luck. It’s certainly going to be the holiday of a lifetime – but not quite in the way Evie imagines!” (Taken from the back cover of the book).
Meet me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb
This story is set in the glamorous locations of Cannes and Monaco. Weaving fiction with real historical events around the wedding of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier, the action starts at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. Grace Kelly escapes from a British paparazzi by hiding in a perfume boutique belonging to Sophie Duval. Over the course of the following year a bond develops between the two women in the run-up to the royal wedding. The story also follows the relationship between Sophie and the photographer which isn’t exactly straightforward.
The authors capture the glitz of the French Riviera and Monaco, along with an insight into the workings of the perfume industry when Sophie ventures to Grasse for her family business.
Read a full review of Meet me in Monaco here.
Books set in Nice, Villefranche sur Mer and St Jean Cap Ferrat
Akin by Emma Donoghue
Widowed, childless, professor Noah from New York is about to go on a trip to Nice, the city of his birth, for his 80th birthday, when his plans are thrown into chaos. At the last minute, he has to take his 11-year-old great-nephew, Michael, who he has never met, with him.
The story is set for the most part in Nice, which we see through the jet-lagged eyes of this unlikely couple, experiencing carnival, French food and its lesser-known history, as Noah sets about trying to unearth his mother’s past. He has discovered some mysterious old photos and is worried his mother may have been a Nazi spy. Michael, using his generation’s almost innate understanding of technology and the internet ultimately helps Noah discover the truth.
‘If Room forced home truths on us, about parenthood, responsibility and love, Akin deals with similar subject matter more subtly, but in the end just as compellingly’ – Guardian
Not Quite Nice by Celia Imrie
“Theresa is desperate for a change. Forced into early retirement, fed up with babysitting her bossy daughter’s obnoxious children, she sells her Highgate house and moves to the picture-perfect town of Bellevue-sur-Mer, just outside Nice. Quite Nice. With its beautiful villas, its bustling cafes and shimmering cerulean sea, the village sparkles like a diamond on the French Mediterranean coast….
As Theresa settles to the gentle rhythm of seaside life she embraces her new-found friendships and freedom. However, life is never quite as simple as it seems and as skeletons start to fall out of several closets, Theresa begins to wonder if life on the French Riviera is quite as nice as it first appeared.” From Good Reads.
This is the first book by actress Cecila Imrie and let’s just say that acting is her forté not writing. However it’s an easy, mindless read, which might brighten up a dull February day with its descriptions of the colourful warm Côte d’Azur if you don’t mind the rather ridiculous storyline!
The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr
The French Riviera scenes in The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr take place in Villefranche sur Mer and the exclusive peninsula of St Jean Cap Ferrat. German detective Bernie Gunther is hunting a Nazi war criminal along the Riviera as the Cambridge Spies scandal is breaking. Much of the action is set in Villa Mauresque, Somerset Maugham’s Riviera residence. Maugham and a host of other real-life characters play a part in this atmospheric tale of espionage.
“Having gone into hiding in the French Riviera, Bernie Gunther is working as a concierge at the Grand-Hôtel under a false name. His days and nights consist of maneuvering drunks to their rooms, shooing away prostitutes in search of trade, and answering the mindless questions posed by the absurdly rich guests—needless to say, he’s miserable. Now, the man who was once a homicide detective and unwilling SS officer in Hitler’s Third Reich is simply the person you turn to for touring tips or if you need a bridge partner.
As it just so happens, a rich and famous writer needs someone to fill the fourth seat in a regular game at the Villa Mauresque. But Somerset Maugham wants Bernie to help him get out of a game far more dangerous than bridge. Maugham is being blackmailed—perhaps because of his unorthodox lifestyle, or perhaps because, once upon a time, Maugham worked for the British Secret Service…” From Penguin Random House.
Skin Deep by Liz Nugent
“Cordelia Russell has been living on the French Riviera for twenty-five years, passing herself off as an English socialite. But her luck, and the kindness of strangers, have run out.
The arrival of a visitor from her distant past shocks Cordelia. She reacts violently to the intrusion and flees her flat to spend a drunken night at a glittering party. As dawn breaks she stumbles home through the back streets. Even before she opens her door she can hear the flies buzzing. She did not expect the corpse inside to start decomposing quite so quickly.” (From Good Reads).
Skin Deep was the Irish Independent’s Crime Fiction Book of the year in 2018. Set on the desolate Irish Island of Iniscran and the French Riviera Nugent brings these locations alive with her vibrant descriptions. A thrilling read.
Books set in Grasse and Sophia-Antipolis in the French Riviera
Perfume by Patrick Suskind
Perfume is a disturbing historical novel by German writer Patrick Süskind partly set in the town of Grasse, the world centre of perfume-making. It was a world-wide hit, translated into 49 languages and more than 20 million copies sold.
“The story follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an unloved orphan in 18th-century France who is born with an exceptional sense of smell, capable of distinguishing a vast range of scents in the world around him. Grenouille becomes a perfumer but later becomes involved in murder when he encounters a young girl with an unsurpassed wondrous scent.” From Wikipedia.
The story is unique, original, disturbing, horrifying and yet beautiful. The descriptions of perfumes are so rich, they stay with you like a lingering scent. This book offers a very different description of the beautiful French Riviera, one you won’t forget in a rush!
The Reunion (La Jeune Fille et la Nuit) by Guillaume Musso
Guillaume Musso is one of the top-selling authors in France (if not the top seller) with around 11 million copies of his novels sold worldwide, translated into 34 languages. He comes from Antibes and I believe he went to (or possibly taught at) the school he uses as a model for the one in this novel, The Reunion (or La Jeune Fille et la Nuit in French). And the reason I think this is that it is also the school my children attended, which adds another level of interest for me personally. It may be a fictional elite international school but its inspiration draws heavily on our local lycée and the locations are all places nearby that we know well and go to regularly. It is currently (autumn 2021) being filmed for a TV series.
This book, set in the French Riviera, in the technopole of Sophia-Antipolis, Valbonne and Antibes, centres around a school reunion. Three friends are linked by a tragic secret and they haven’t seen each other or spoken since graduation 25 years ago. But they know they must go back to school one more time because there is a body in the gym, which is due to be demolished, and they put it there! The suspenseful story alternates between the past and the present mainly surrounding the events of the night a fourth friend Vinca Rockwell disappeared. Dark secrets are revealed with many twists and turns before the truth about that terrible night is finally revealed.
Super-Cannes by JG Ballard
“A disturbing mystery awaits Paul and Jane Sinclair when they arrive in Eden-Olympia, a high-tech business park in the hills above Cannes. Jane is to work as a doctor for those who live in this ultra-modern workers’ paradise. But what caused her predecessor to go on a shooting spree that made headlines around the world? As Paul investigates, he begins to uncover a thriving subculture of crime that is spiralling out of control.” (Amazon)
This sun-drenched Ballardian dystopia is on the surface an intelligent satirical thriller, but it is also a novel of ideas exploring a new kind of social pathology. The setting in the fictional business park Eden-Olympia is based on the technopole Sophia-Antipolis, France’s centre of hi-tech, located across the towns of Valbonne, Biot and Antibes. There are also scenes in the iconic Marina Baie des Anges in Villeneuve-Loubet. In Super-Cannes you won’t find the Riviera of traditional Provençal villas, luxurious mansions and pretty beaches, rather a landscape of confusing roundabouts, 1970s office blocks and manmade lakes!
Books set in the countryside inland and Mercantour National Park
Seeking Whom he May Desire (l’Homme à l’Envers) by Fred Vargas
“A small mountain community in the French Alps is roused to terror when they awaken each morning to find yet another of their sheep with its throat torn out. One of the villagers thinks it might be a werewolf, and when she’s found killed in the same manner, people begin to wonder if she might have been right. Suspicion falls on Massart, a loner living on the edge of town.
The murdered woman’s adopted son, one of the shepherds, and her new friend Camille decide to pursue Massart, who has conveniently disappeared. Their ineptness for the task soon becomes painfully obvious, and they summon Commissaire Adamsberg from the city to bring his exceptional powers of intuition to bear on layer upon layer of buried hatred and secret.” (from the back cover blurb).
Fred Vargas is one of France’s best-selling authors and she sets this ingenious and original thriller in the Mercantour National Park, just inland from Nice, a place of majestic Alpine peaks and tranquil lakes. The story is highly topical as the reintroduction and proliferation of wild wolves in France is not without controversy.
Read more about the wolves in the Mercantour National Park.
The French House by Nick Alexander
“Everyone dreams of escaping the rat-race of the city to sunny bliss in foreign climes – but what happens when you make the dream a reality?
CC is trapped by a job she no longer loves in an unfriendly city. So when her new boyfriend decides it’s time to sell up and move to the South of France, she decides in seconds to change her life. After all, who wouldn’t pick an azure sea, aperitifs and sunshine over a dreary commute and a rainy climate?
She hadn’t expected a tumbledown farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Or a motley assortment of surly builders, eccentric farmers and a resentful, terrifying neighbour – who happens to be her boyfriend’s aunt.” (Waterstones)
The French House is set in the hills somewhere roughly above Grasse/Vence, probably around Gréolières. Its evocative descriptions of the arrière-pays (the backcountry) stand out more than the actual story itself which is lighthearted and somewhat predictable. You really get a sense of being in the beautiful but desolate landscape of this part of inland Riviera.
Books set around La Napoule and l’Estérel
The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
“The last uncompleted novel of Ernest Hemingway, published posthumously in 1986, charts the life of a young American writer and his glamorous wife who fall for the same woman.
A sensational bestseller when it appeared in 1986, The Garden of Eden is the last uncompleted novel of Ernest Hemingway, which he worked on intermittently from 1946 until his death in 1961. Set in La Napoule on the Côte d’Azur in the 1920s, it is the story of a young American writer, David Bourne, his glamorous wife, Catherine, and the dangerous, erotic game they play when they fall in love with the same woman.
A lean, sensuous narrative…taut, chic, and strangely contemporary, The Garden of Eden represents vintage Hemingway, the master doing what nobody did better.” (R. Z. Sheppard, Time).
The Forgotten Summer by Carol Drinkwater
Actress and prolific writer Carol Drinkwater lives in the French Riviera and her love of it and Provence shines through in this story set in a fictional location roughly between Agay in the Estérel and Théoule-La Napoule. This is purely my interpretation of this book taking clues from descriptions and the author may well disagree! But no matter where the actual location is, you’ll be transported to the south of France with Carol’s delicious descriptions of Provence.
The story takes place on the Cambon family’s wine and olive estate where a web of secrets and a family drama threaten the future of the business. Mystery, family feuds, pied noir history, heartbreak, intrigue and romance all intertwine to keep you turning the pages. Read a full review here.
Carol Drinkwater has written several other books set in the French Riviera and nearby including a quartet of memoirs set on her olive farm and The House on the Edge of the Cliff (roughly located on the Calanques near Cassis, a bit further west from the Riviera).
Books set in the French Riviera in general, location not specific
Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness) by Françoise Sagan
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan is a “stylish, shimmering and amoral tale of adolescence and betrayal on the French Riviera”, published in 1954 when its author was just eighteen years old.
“It tells the story of Cécile, who leads a carefree life with her widowed father and his young mistresses until, one hot summer on the Riviera, he decides to remarry – with devastating consequences.” (Wikipedia).
This novella was an overnight success causing a scandal for its depiction of permissive family life and open sexuality. It is set in the Riviera in general, not a specific place, so it is the warmth of the sun, the sparkling sea, the sensuality of the Mediterranean and the relaxed lifestyle that pervade the pages of this French classic.
A Very French Affair by Sue Roberts
“Life just got a whole lot more complicated for thirty-eight-year-old single mum Liv. Her son Jake is practically perfect in every way, but he’s started asking some difficult questions, and the answers lie in a holiday romance twenty years ago. Back when Liv was staying with her aunt on the French Riviera…
Returning to the Cote d’Azur, with its white sandy beaches, her supportive aunt, and exquisite wine and cheese is harder than it sounds though. Because – if she’s going to give Jake the answers he needs – Liv knows she has to hunt down her first love Andre. And since she’s a professional baker rather than a professional investigator, she doesn’t even have a clue where to start.
At first, finding the one that got away proves even trickier than she thought. And if she succeeds, how will he take the bombshell secret Liv has been keeping? Liv has to do the best thing for her family, but does that mean closing the door on this very French affair?” taken from the back cover blurb.
This is an easy read, best accompanied with a glass of rosé, on a sunbed on a beach….or else at home curled up on the sofa dreaming of the south of France
Imogen by Jilly Cooper
This book set in the French Riviera in a fictional town called Port-les-Pins is so incredibly dated it almost reads like historical fiction. Imogen is one of Jilly Cooper’s earlier novels, part of a series of “permissive” romances based on long magazine stories she had published previously. If you’re a fan of Jilly Cooper you’ll enjoy this, if not, it’s possibly best left on the shelf!
“As a librarian, Imogen read a lot of books, but none of them covered real life on the Riviera. Her holiday with tennis ace, Nicky, and the whole glamorous coterie of journalist, playboy, photographer, was a revelation – and so was she. A prize worth winning. A wild Yorkshire rose among the thorny model girls, Cable and Yvonne, with a rare asset that they’d mislaid years ago… But the path of a jet-set virgin in that lovely wicked world was a hard one. Imogen began to wonder if virtue really was its own reward…” (Back cover blurb).
The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers by Ted Jones
This book is not fiction, but I feel it deserves its place in this list as Ted Jones has put together an extraordinary amount of research on where and when writers found their inspiration and located their stories on the French Riviera. A must for all Francophiles and lovers of literature.
“The sunlight and calm of the French Riviera have been a magnet for writers since the fourteenth century. The Cote d’Azur has provided the inspiration and setting for some of the greatest literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers is a reader’s journey along this fabled coast, from Hyeres and Saint-Tropez in the west to the Italian border in the east, introducing the lives and work of writers who passed this way, from distinguished Nobel laureates to new authors who found their voices there.” Bloomsbury.com
This encyclopaedic work is “the ultimate travel book for anyone who likes sun and literature.” Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence, nails exactly how I feel! Combining two of my greatest loves, literature and the Côte d’Azur, this is the perfect read for anyone who shares these passions.
I have read all these books over the years and nearly all are on the shelves in the gite for our guests staying at Lou Messugo. I haven’t included links to buy these books as I hope you’d get them from your local independent bookshop rather than through a global giant, but they are mostly pretty easy to order online if you prefer.
There must be plenty more books set in the French Riviera that I haven’t discovered yet, which I’d love to know about, so please share your recommendations in the comments.
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