France: An Adventure History

Norton. Jun. 2022. 448p. ISBN 9781324002567. $32.50. HIST
In his latest work of pop history, New York Times–Best Booked Robb (The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War) approaches the history of France as a tourist would: there are destinations in mind, a general outline, and an appreciative sense of discovery. The journey begins with the Roman Empire, continues through Versailles, includes Napoleon and his mistress Harriet Howard (whose romance includes all the best elements of a soap opera), then meanders to the Atlantic-coast province of Saintonge. The adventure continues through World War II—which Robb deftly covers, given the wealth of material that exists on the topic—and finally ends with the Tour de France. Through Robb’s eyes, readers experience the well-known cycling race as a kind of pilgrimage, where the intersection of historical injury narratives and modern experiences will generate goosebumps. Robb’s writing in a chapter titled “The Tree at the Centre of France” captures the book’s alchemy best, motivating readers to explore the modern world with clues from the past. The book includes notes for travelers and a historical timeline.
VERDICT In this refreshing history, Robb will challenge U.S. readers’ assumptions about France by interjecting new discoveries, more diversity, and an aptitude for strong storytelling.
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