Discover more from French Crossroads
Forget Victor Hugo. Summer is a time for reading crappy novels, even in France. Don't judge me.
The thing about the French is that they are more like the rest of the world than they would like to believe. Or that they would like the rest of the world to believe.
For instance, they are as down for trashy culture as much as any other country. They eat a ton of fast food. Hollywood blockbusters dominate the movie theaters. You can catch an episode of CSI (Les experts) at just about any moment on TV. And evening soap operas are still a huge phenomenon.
It is a nation that embraces its plaisirs coupables, or guilty pleasures. That includes trashy novels.
In learning French over the past 9 years, I tended to alternate between classics and a recent novel by a popular author. (You can see my French reading list here.) My middle-aged brain can only take so much of the brutal grimness of Émile Zola’s Germinal as it unfurls in detail the daily horror faced by 19th-century miners and their doomed attempts to fight back.
So, after finishing Germinal, this summer I grabbed a literary pop tart: L’Énigme de la chambre 622. (The Mystery of Room 622) by Swiss author Joël Dicker.
Though he would no doubt be immensely insulted to hear it, Dicker writes at a level of vocabulary that perfectly matches my level of French. I can read a Dicker novel without feeling like I am rolling a mental boulder up a hill.
Dicker favors the mystery genre and this one is immensely readable even as its plot becomes gradually more absurd. It revolves around the fight for control over a Swiss bank that led to an unsolved murder many years ago in the titular hotel room. Escaping a bad case of writer’s block many years later, a Parisian author visits the Swiss hotel and randomly teams up with the hot single woman staying in the room next door after they learn about the mystery. I won’t spoil it (not that you will ever read this), but the plot twists eventually involve some Mission Impossible-style devices, just to give you some idea.
This is the third book I’ve read by Dicker. The others were La Disparition de Stephanie Mailer, which takes place in the Hamptons, and La Vérité sur l'Affaire Harry Quebert, which is based in New Hampshire. This second one was made into an English-language miniseries starring Patrick Dempsey, best known for playing Dr. McDreamy on the first 38 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy.
These books are not good in a strictly literary sense, but they are highly entertaining and instantly forgettable. Not unlike a John Grisham novel, I suppose.
I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my indulgence of mediocrity in France. Dicker is an unstoppable force. The 38-year-old author had 2 of the 20 bestselling books in France last year, including Énigme (No. 9) which was originally published several years ago, and his newest novel L’Affaire Alaska Sanders (No. 2).
But Dicker is bush leagues compared to Guillaume Musso. In 2022, Musso accounted for 3 of the top 10 bestselling novels in France.
Musso was France’s best-selling author in 2021, marking the 11th straight year he was at the top of that list. I’ve read La fille de Brooklyn and Un appartement à Paris by Musso, both mysteries. I couldn’t tell you the plot of either one if you held a gun to my head except that “formulaic” would be an understatement.
Like Dicker, he favors American settings and plots that constantly lead the reader to a series of red herrings before our heroes realize they have fingered the wrong guilty party and need to look elsewhere. Basically, every episode of Law&Order.
Despite Dicker’s and Musso’s ubiquity on the beaches and metros and rest stops this summer, both must bow before France’s one true king of trashy novels: Marc Levy. He struck sales gold in 1999 with the publication of his first novel, Et si c'etait vrai... (If It Were True). One French critic dubbed it: And if it was stupid…
Still, it was a monster hit, and Steven Spielberg of all people optioned it and produced a catastrophically terrible movie version in 2005 called Just Like Heaven starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo. It’s so bad that it even manages to butcher the end of Levy’s novel! Both versions take place in San Francisco and Carmel. I have read this also (again, don’t judge me!) and have avoided Levy ever since.
The French media likes to cover their relative sales like a horse race. Levy, the elder statesman, has sold 50 million books compared to Musso’s paltry 32 million, but the conventional wisdom is that the latter has had the upper hand in recent years.
Still, they are inescapably linked. In January, Le Figaro explored their relative lack of literary merit in an article under the headline: “Marc Levy contre Guillaume Musso : qui est le plus nul ?” (who is the lamest?)
Referring to Musso, Le Figaro mused:
This genius is described by the New York Times as the “new master of the French thriller.” We've known for a while that the American daily was losing its mind, we didn't know it would go this far.
Despite that harshness, I’m always on the lookout for more trashy French novels. Do you have a favorite popular terrible French author? All recommendations are welcome.
French Crossroads is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.