Alice Dunn

Books that take you abroad

Books that take you abroad
Text settings

With foreign holidays off the cards for some time to come, armchair travel has never been more tempting. Here are some of the best books to take you beyond your living room.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Four women answer an advertisement in The Times, ‘To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine. Small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April.’ What follows is a delightful holiday in picturesque scenery as the women escape the monotony of everyday life. Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to share their views of ‘the Judas tree and an umbrella pine […] the freesias and the lilies,’ and vistas ‘across the tranquil clear green water of the little harbour.’ It’s a wonderful story and an effortless way to see the Italian Riviera.

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Although some of the book is set in the fictitious resort of ‘Mongibello’, much of the narrative takes place around well-known regions of Italy, from Rome to San Remo and Venice. Life in Italy seems to agree with everybody: ‘“This is what I like,” Dickie said expansively in the Galleria, “sitting at a table and watching the people go by. It does something to your outlook on life.”’ Dickie has no idea what frightening plans Tom Ripley has for him. Gripping and full of twists, the enticing Italian backdrop only enhances the darkness of the tale.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Lucy Honeychurch is on a long tour of Italy with her cousin and companion, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, in this classic. While in Florence, Lucy enjoys the opportunity to ‘lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.’ However, it does not all run smoothly. She witnesses a murder in a piazza. Fortunately, once she has recovered from fainting, she continues to fall in love with the country, and of course with the enigmatic George.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

On the French Riviera, 17-year-old Cécile is enjoying a summer holiday with her father and his girlfriend. She is having a relaxing trip, noticing ‘the ever-present sea with its incessant rhythms, and the sun.’ That is, until Anne arrives. Anne was a good friend of Cécile’s late mother, and she appears to be set on ruining Cécile’s fun. A work in translation, Bonjour Tristesse (‘Hello Sadness’) is a moving, coming-of-age novel which could not have been set anywhere other than the South of France.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

For an immensely readable non-fiction jaunt to France, A Year in Provence serves as many laughs as it does lunches. We see Mayle’s first-hand experiences of the town where tables are ‘piled high with vegetables, small and fragrant bushes of basil, tubs of lavender honey, great green bottles of first pressing olive oil, trays of hot-house peaches,’ and occupants buy bread by the half-yard. Before we book our tickets and buy a stone farmhouse as Mayle and his wife did, he warns us that those who live in Provence take rain ‘as a personal affront,’ and their mood suffers as a consequence. As negatives go, this is a mild one, and certainly not enough to put you off the Provencal life.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure is sixteen-years-old, blind, and living in Paris with her father during its occupation in the Second World War. We find our way around Paris in almost the same way as she has come to know it by following the scale-model her father has made for her of the streets. The city ‘thins steadily into low houses […] broken by long strands of trees.’ Marie-Laure is sometimes scared but always strong as she senses ‘a shiver beneath the air.’ Beautifully written and a contemporary classic, Doerr handles Paris’s beauty sensitively while dwelling in its forgotten corners.

Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s latest novel takes us from LA to Greece and Munich, all through the eyes of a young Greek woman called Calista. She is a fictional character who lands the job of assisting the real-life Hollywood director Billy Wilder in the mid-1970s. When they get to Corfu for the filming of his movie ‘Fedora’, they are ‘greeted by the rich, unspoiled blueness of the sky, the salty freshness of the sea breeze.’ A fun and energetic read, but brace yourself for plenty of jet-set envy.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

For a full immersion into life in Corfu, pick a paragraph from Gerald Durrell’s timeless book. Chaotic and hilarious, it tells the story of his family as they settle into the island and has many moments of poetic description: ‘the sea lifted smooth blue muscles of wave as it stirred in the dawn light,’ and we see ‘the sun lifted over the horizon, and the sky turned the smooth enamelled blue of a jay’s eye.’ Escapism at its finest.

The options for travelling through books are indeed endless. Laurie Lee shows us Spain’s purple hills in his memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. In Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac we can see around the descriptions of the unmoved protagonist, who amusingly calls Lake Geneva’s landscape ‘unemphatic’ and describes its castle as ‘dour, grim, a rebarbative silhouette.’ 

For glorious travel without complications, choose any title by Victoria Hislop or Kristin Hannah, or, if you crave a classic, Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes proceeds from Russia to Geneva. To see Croatia and the Dalmatian Coast (via Paris and Torcello), pick the pitch-perfect Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge. If you would rather peruse a gritty tale, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai tells the stories of an orphan living in Kalimpong in India and a young Indian man living in America. For a sublime stretch in Scandinavia, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (creator of the Moomins) will have you reaching for her other titles such as A Winter Book and Fair Play to complete the tour. Whatever you choose, get comfy, you’re in for a wild ride.