BookBrowse Reviews The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray

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The Personal Librarian

by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray X
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2021, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2022, 352 pages

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A fictional glimpse into the life of Belle da Costa Greene, a Black woman passing as white who managed banker J.P. Morgan's private library.

The Personal Librarian drew a robust positive response from our First Impressions reviewers, receiving a rating of 4 or 5 stars from 70 out of 77 readers. The book is a collaboration between the novelists Marie Benedict and Victoria Murray.

What the book is about:

The fascinating story of Belle da Costa Greene begins for the reader in 1905. She went from working at the library at Princeton University to becoming the personal librarian to J.P. Morgan. Even though her father was the first African American man to graduate from Harvard University, she lived her whole life as a white woman (Elizabeth K). The story provides a fascinating look at the process of building and collecting a library of rare books, manuscripts and art. But, it is also the story of a beautiful, intelligent and witty black woman, living as white (Sherilyn R).

Readers enjoyed peering into the world of art and antiquities in early-1900s New York high society.

The characters with whom Belle mingles have volumes written about them — Vanderbilt, Elsie de Wolfe, Lillian Russell, Oscar Wilde, Steichen, Stieglitz, Bernard Berenson and of course the collector himself, J.P. Morgan (Margaret S). I found the book to be particularly interesting in the descriptions of the sumptuousness of the library, the fashions of the time, the paintings and other artifacts owned by the Morgans and their friends, and the preciousness of the manuscripts and tomes sought for the collection (Dorinne D).

Many were pleased to discover a captivating protagonist based on a fascinating real-life figure.

I came to love the heroine's balance of professional chutzpah and vulnerable heart (Jessamyn R). Belle da Costa Greene was, historically, a very powerful woman and yet has never crossed my radar. The authors describe a woman of great intelligence, style and depth one can never know enough about (Carole A). This portrayal of the diminutive (in stature only) Greene and her ability to navigate a purely (white) man's world with her wit, tenacity and intelligence is unforgettable (Patricia L).

Some felt the book dragged at times despite its interesting characters and subject matter.

I felt that the characters were well-drawn, but thought that the book moved very slowly from major issue to major issue without sufficient build-up to propel the story forward (Erica M). The style of writing in this book reflects the restricted customs and repressed emotions... which makes it a slower and perhaps less exciting read (Karen W).

However, readers saw the novel's great potential for stimulating book club discussions, with some suggesting it would pair well with Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half.

This book is an interesting counterpoint to The Vanishing Half, since the time and financial status are so different (Karen W). Coincidentally, both of my book groups had just finished reading and discussing The Vanishing Half. Hours could be spent discussing these two books together, even though they are different in many ways. This is a terrific book club book (Marianne D).

Ultimately, reviewers felt that The Personal Librarian is an important work for its social and political context, with many layers that make it worth the read.

Focusing on both racial and gender rights in the first half of the 20th century, the story line shows both the progress we've made and the work still ahead. I feel certain that both book clubs I'm involved in — one for women only and the other for both men and women — would be pleased with this selection (Patricia E). The Personal Librarian not only shows us how far we have come in our struggle against racial inequality and injustice, but also reminds us how much more is left to be done. ... It's a great story and the discussion possibilities are endless (Christine P).

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2021, and has been updated for the June 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
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