The Personal Librarian – by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray – independent book review – Historical Fiction (U.S.)

The woman at the center of this historical novel (and bestseller) is nothing short of fascinating! Belle da Costa Greene, as the title suggests, served as personal librarian to famous American financier J. P. Morgan — whose business acumen and canny investments helped build the fortunes of many of the multi-millionaires created during the industrialization of the Guilded Age (1870s – 1900). It was Belle whose guidance, knowledge, and innate intelligence made Morgan’s collection world renowned, a collection now on public display at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

J.P. Morgan

After Belle moved from a minor position at the Princeton University library to Morgan’s employ (through a connection with Morgan’s nephew), Belle has to adjust to moving in circles of wealth and power.

Morgan collected historical books and art work and increasingly relied on Belle to do the research needed to prove an object’s value, as well as negotiate with sellers and compete against other buyers. Her skill and innovative approaches soon earn her both a solid reputation and widespread admiration from the rich and famous.

The story of any young woman’s rise into these circles of influence would make this historical fiction a good read, on its own. But what adds immeasurably is the secret Belle is keeping. For decades. She is Afro-American, passing as white. And given the racist society of the time, she no doubt would have been unable to achieve success if her secret was revealed.

Belle da Costa Greene (1914)
Photo from Wikipedia

The glimpse into the difficulty of living a split life like Belle’s where, on the one hand, she travels the world at the highest levels of society and has the ear of one of the most powerful men in the United States, and, on the other, is the primary support for her Black family of origin — is dramatic and sobering. To see how valuable Belle’s many gifts are and to understand that racial identity alone determines her ability to use those gifts becomes a stark lesson in the crushing poison of racism in America.

The book came out of a collaboration between two authors, one white (Marie Benedict), one black (Victoria Christopher Murray). And their Afterwords reveal how impactful their work together added to each one’s understanding of race in modern times. This too adds an interesting dimension to the book.

Morgan Library and Museum
Photo from Wikicommons

There are a few places where dialog feels a bit unnatural and clunky- chiefly when characters in the book are trying to summarize some of the societal activities underway to advance equality for all. These can feel a bit stilted at times. But THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN is one that is NOT to be missed.

More about the authors, Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.

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