I received this book for free from Library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray
Published by Penguin on June 29, 2021
Genres: Fiction / African American & Black / Women, Fiction / Biographical, Fiction / Historical / General
Buy on Amazon, Buy on Bookshop
The Instant New York Times Bestseller! A Good Morning America* Book Club Pick!
Named one of the Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post
"Historical fiction at its best!"*
A remarkable novel about J. P. Morgan's personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, the Black American woman who was forced to hide her true identity and pass as white in order to leave a lasting legacy that enriched our nation, from New York Times bestselling authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.
In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. P. Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture in New York City society and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps create a world-class collection.
But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality. Belle's complexion isn't dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white--her complexion is dark because she is African American.
The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths she must go to--for the protection of her family and her legacy--to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.
I just finished The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray last night and I had so many thoughts afterwards, that I decided that I definitely had to write this review ASAP. When I first saw The Personal Librarian debut last year, I kind of eyed it but never really sought it out to read. But little by little I inched toward it and after one of my friends talked it up, I decided to go for it. I’m so glad that I did, because I love hidden history!
Discover Some Women’s History
I. Knew. Nothing. About. This. Influential. Black. Woman. Miss Belle da Costa Green aka Belle Marion Greener was a trailblazer! This woman operated in all-white spaces with the ultra wealthy while passing for White, all the while curating one of the largest collections of books and art at that time in history for one man. Her genius, perseverance and cleverness put her at the top of the competition in an all-male field. She wasn’t just a librarian, she was THEE Librarian!
To be clear, I also knew nothing about J.P.Morgan other than the following before reading this book.
- He was super wealthy. (You have to say wealthy, because the dollars this man and his family had were nothing to blink at.)
- He didn’t get on the Mayflower.
- His name is connected to banking and investing.
That’s it. A wealthy guy with a mustache from the turn of the century.
Sexy Librarian Girl
My girl Belle, quickly came to the understanding that her mama’s ways were not her own if she was going to survive in high society. And if she was going to hide in plain site, then she might as well go big or go home. And she definitely went big, like huge! The woman gets a job with one of the wealthiest men in the country. She becomes the ultimate business woman and a role model for countless young ladies. And she flaunts her “stuff” in society circles, wearing bold colors, drinking and flirting.
The woman starts her day categorizing and memorizing facts about books and art pieces, moves onto mentally tussling with a cranky rich guy, then heads to the auction house to spend his money on antique books and art and then heads to the society parties to hobnob with her “enemies” so that she can get a better drop on who her competition is for the next book/art auction. The woman is amazing!
Is History Boring Or is Your Perspective?
Now I’ve seen a few reviews from readers who got bored while reading The Personal Librarian and skipped to the end. But that was not my experience. Because if it had been that boring my ADHD would not have allowed me to finish it. This book is about hidden identity, the kind that will get you ostracized, your life’s work “eviscerated” and possibly get you killed. Passing as white when you are Black is dangerous. So for me, I was paying attention to the constant thread of tension that Belle tightrope walks throughout the book. The whole time I was wondering if/when the ball was going to drop.
The Trauma and Effects of Passing
When you pass you have to give up family, community and culture, because if you don’t you are risking your life. It is also very lonely. You have to isolate and insulate yourself from those you love to avoid being found out. If you don’t have an understanding of how dangerous a line a person who is passing is walking along, then you probably would think that this story is boring.
I also appreciated that the authors addressed the trauma that can occur from the sacrifices you make when you pass. Because her family is split because of her mother’s decision to have herself and the children pass as white, Belle has father issues as well as identity crises. This shows up in her drinking and recklessness.
Moments That Made Me Talk Back to the Book
On that note, I definitely had some talk back to the book moments. Let me see…how do I do this spoiler free? Hmmm. One moment had to do with alcohol and recklessness. The other moment had to do with that…Bernard. Ooooo don’t let me see him in the streets! By the way, I had to pause at Belle’s romantic entanglements, because no judgy, but ol’ girl likes them older. I had no expectations for her getting a boyfriend as I was just going with the flow, but when man #2 was again in the 20+ range I did raise an eyebrow.
Next Reading Inspiration
I think I am going to slide over to Nella Larsen’s figurative DMs and check out her book Passing. I’ve actually been meaning to read this one for a while. I saw some thematic connections in The Personal Librarian that I think will appear in Passing too. So I’m curious to read it as a companion or complementary read.
- Belle de Costa Greene: Library Director, Advocate, and Rare Books Expert
- The Story Of J.P. Morgan’s ‘Personal Librarian’ — And Why She Chose To Pass As White
HAVE A SIP OF COCOA ☕…
I came for… intriguing Black women’s history
I stayed for…. I had to follow Belle’s story through to the end!
Hot Cocoa Moments: When Belle put on that lilac dress and decided it was better to show up and show out as a complementary combination for swaying the social elites rather than being a wallflower that blended in for safety’s sake.
Would I Read it Again: I might… I haven’t started my research deep dive on Belle and J.P. yet so I might need to once I do that.
Educator Recommendations: I loved the history in this book! If you are studying the reconstruction era of the United States, this is a great book to pull excerpts from to help students gain some insight into the thoughts of Black people during that time. I honestly had never heard of a story featuring the perspective of Black elites during that time period before. It was refreshing and enlightening to think about what these real-life people might have thought about a time in history when they were finally able to rise to heights never before conquered by Blacks and the devastation that must’ve followed when that era ended.
Interested in my other reads for March? Check out March Reading Goals: Reading Like a Lion