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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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There are currently 85 reader reviews for The Personal Librarian
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Julie P. (Fort Myers, FL)

The Personal Librarian
Marie Benedict seems to have discovered a sure thing: write a novel about a real-life, strong, independent woman whose achievements need to be recognized by the world. Her newest book, The Personal Librarian, is the story of a young African American woman, passing as white, who is hired by J. P. Morgan to acquire and organize antiquities for his personal library. Benedict recognized that she could not truly tell this story without the voice of an African American writer, so she teamed with Victoria Christopher Murray, author of Stand Your Ground. Together they recount the fascinating story of flamboyant Belle, her family, her lover, her relationship with J. P. Morgan, and her career as a collector of antiquities, all the while hoping that her true identity would not be discovered, thereby putting an end to her considerable accomplishments. My only criticism? The title is a little lackluster, and I don't think it's going to hook too many readers. Other than that, an excellent choice for book groups with lots to discuss, especially in light of the recent racial controversies.
Linda S. (Milford, CT)

The Personal Librarian
Belle da Costa Greene was born in Washington, D.C. 1879, as Belle Marion Greener to a prominent African-American family. They moved to New York City to escape increasing racism. They changed their names and passed for white. Her father soon left the family in total disagreement with that decision. Belle's first job was in the Princeton University Library. After making the acquaintance of Junius Morgan, nephew of J.P. Morgan, he recommended her for the job of personal librarian in the newly built Morgan library on Fifth Avenue. She was hired after an impressive interview with J.P. himself.

Belle learned much during her career about rare books, manuscripts and fine art. She developed a great working relationship with Mr. Morgan; they respected each other. Over the years, he relied on her good judgment. She traveled to Europe, which was unusual for a young woman at that time. She would retrieve works of art or ancient books that Mr. Morgan had bought and was also given authority to purchase items at auction. She was an expert in illuminated manuscripts and developed incredible bargaining prowess with dealers, at times being the only woman at an event.

Belle never married, but she had a long and stormy relationship with Bernard Berenson, a Renaissance Italian art expert. .In 1939, she Medieval Academy of America in 1939, she was elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, only the second woman, and first known person of color, to be so honored.

I highly recommend this informative and interesting book. Well researched and written.
Susan S. (Springdale, AR)

The Personal Librarian
Marie has done it again! Another amazing work of historical fiction. There are so many fascinating nuances about this little-known woman and indeed about her benefactor JP Morgan as well. This beautifully written book flows seamlessly throughout the years as Belle & JP work side by side to create an unparalleled collection of antique texts. Hidden in plain sight, Belle's true heritage threatens her career and possibly her very life. Kudos to Benedict for bringing in Victoria Christopher Murray to help bring Belle, a woman of color, to life. Thoroughly enjoyable to read! Can't wait for the next one!
Karen S. (Allston, MA)

Already recommending to many friends!
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict was a page turner for me, and I loved every page. Somehow this author included history, art, race and identity, social norms, family ties and secrets in this great story. The backdrop of the developing Pierpont Morgan Library and brewing World War adds to the fascination. I seldom see an author cover so many themes so well in one book. Belle da Costa Greene was an extraordinary figure for many reasons, yet I had never heard of her. I am glad this very readable piece of historical fiction introduced me to her. A final word of praise: I really appreciated the author's note at the end describing how closely she incorporated known history, where she altered a few minor points and how she filled in the missing parts of the story Belle never revealed.
Becky S. (Springfield, MO)

Trailblazer for women!
What a great book about someone that I knew nothing about! One of the reasons I love historical fiction, learning so much about the past and some magnificent and brave people. Belle de la Costa Greene, is certainly someone that I admire after reading her story. I can't even imagine the fear she lived with every day thinking that her secret might be uncovered. But she looked right into the eyes of that fear and made such a successful life for herself ... in a time when women had very little power. What a trailblazer for women!
Nancy D. (Raleigh, NC)

A Woman's Struggle
What I love most about historical fiction is that you are twice blessed while reading the novel. One learns something new about some time or somebody in history with an added plus of a good story. This is how I feel about The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict. What a wonderful story about Belle's triumphs as an independent woman in the early 1900's. She is knowledgeable, carries the financial support of her family and is respected and trusted by one of the most influential man of the time, J. P. Morgan. Mr. Morgan not only relied on her expertise, but at times it appears that he might even have been in love with her. She accomplishes all of this while keeping the secret of her true heritage. Belle's interior struggle to be her own woman, both professionally and ethically, tells the story of a woman in conflict. She yearns to honor her father and to help her people. A genuinely good book, both enjoyable and informative.
Marianne D. (Crofton, MD)

Good book, intriguing backstory
I definitely enjoyed this book. While it is an easy read, there is much to ponder in the story and the history behind this fictionalized account. The authors' comments at the end of the book are critical.

While I'd probably give the book itself a 4.5, the story behind the story is fascinating and takes my review to a 5. 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. I wish both book groups would schedule a discussion of "The Personal Librarian" in conjunction with "The Vanishing Half." I venture some comments made about "The Vanishing Half" would be re-considered and re-stated.

I was drawn to this book in part because I had read Marie Benedict's "The Only Woman in the Room." I knew "The Personal Librarian" was about the woman who built J. P. Morgan's remarkable collection of manuscripts and art, but I did not know who that woman was. This is a terrific book club book.
Christine P. (Essex Junction, VT)

The Personal Librarian
The story of Belle da Costa Greene, the personal librarian for JP Morgan, is more than an account of the gilded era and the extraordinary Pierpont Morgan Library, which she and Mr. Morgan created together. It is the story of a woman who had to hide her true identity as a "colored" woman (Belle Marion Greener) to succeed and excel in the segregated and very prejudiced early 20th Century.

Set against the racial racial reckoning of this past year, the Personal Librarian is a timely story that 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.

I will definitely be recommending The Personal Librarian to my book group. It's a great story and the discussion possibilities are endless.

Beyond the Book:
  Belle da Costa Greene

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