Here are five books about Normandy I’ve read and loved. Some are reference books which were helpful to us as we initially explored the region. Others are fiction and memoir. These too have served as reference of course: what, after all, is fiction if not a guide to the possible ways of being?
When we started thinking about buying a house in France, I read everything I could get my hands on: the chic lit novels, the earnest guides to property purchases, A Year in Provence. This last didn’t help much. We are a two-career family, without Mayle’s luxury of time, nor his means.
A couple of caveats. There are significant gaps in this list. First and most glaringly there are not enough books in French. There is also a lack of historical writing, both recent and ancient. I am working to fill these gaps. Please let me know your favourite books about Normandy and France. I’d like to read them, and maybe add them in over time. Finally, there is no particular order to this list.
Madame Bovarytakes place in and around Rouen where Gustave Flaubert was born and raised. Charles and Emma Bovary’s first home is in Tôtes, and they later move to Yonville which is based on Ry. Emma famously meets her lover in Rouen Cathedral I have an edition of Madame Bovary designed by Manolo Blahnik, and it has always seemed a perfect partnership between the cobbler to the Sex in the City girls and Emma, the original desperate housewife.
We have poured over this gorgeous coffee table picture bookby photographer Hugh Palmer, considering the merits of one village over another. Palmer beautifully captures the diversity of Normandy, from the cliffs of Étretat to the lush Pays de Caux farmland dotted with grazing cattle and cider orchards.
There is nothing that comes close to the Michelin Green Guide for its authority and knowledge of the region. You know that if the men at Michelin give an attraction three stars, it will be worth the trip. The alphabetical organization by place name, rather than by region, can be annoying. Normandy is large, and it would be convenient to see what’s near you now. But maybe it’s just reflective of life in France: deal with the weird structure to get to the good stuff.
My mother cooked from Julia Child when I was growing up: not for the children, but when there were dinner parties. Oh the dinner parties. Silver and crystal and cigars and port. Fricadelles de Veau a la Creme. La Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin. I’ve never hosted such a dinner party and it makes me wonder: have I grown up? In My Life in France Julia Child tells how she arrived as a diplomatic wife in her late thirties. The boat docked in Le Havre, and she motored with her husband to Rouen, where she tasted sole meuniere and fine wine and described it as “an opening up of the soul and spirit for me.”
Tell me that Posy Simmond’s graphic novel Gemma Bovery isn’t a great book at your own risk. Great about the English and the English in France, how we talk to each other, how we dress, and how (we imagine) the French observe us. Haircuts, handbags, home decor: Simmonds doesn’t miss a beat in this sharp comic parody of Flaubert’s novel.
I want to give a shout out to three writers whose words about Normandy and France today have resonated with me. It’s not about Normandy specifically, but New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s essays in Paris to the Moon opened my eyes to the pleasures of living with children in France, indeed the pleasures of living with children at all. Humourist David Sedaris dissects the reality of life as a gay American writer in rural Normandy (take that, Emma Bovary!) in Me Talk Pretty One Day. And Judith Warner, who I find perpetually wise, has written beautifully in the New York Times about rural Normandy as antidote to our wired lives.
…in the early evening there is a misty kind of light – a particularly French, grayish, bluish, blackish kind of light – that fills you with a joy so profound that it’s painful. It reminds me of why I live most of my life running around in a snit and obsessing about noisome details, petty insults and minutiae: because to experience happiness – of the most powerful and soul-intimate kind – is also to know that some day it all will end.
–Judith Warner, We’ll Always Have Normandy