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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

    Jun 2022, 352 pages


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Historical Fiction is my favorite. Marie Benedict is such a fantastic author. I have read everything she has written.
Tony C.

Too Strange to be Real
"The Personal Librarian" by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray continues the tradition of "Gentleman's Agreement," "Focus," or the underrated "The Human Stain," in which a character hides their ethnicity in a discriminatory environment. For anyone tired of race as a topic, we have an educated bibliophile who certainly wishes that people would focus on her skill, not her complexion.
Belle, our hero, has her character development based on two key features: she has keen negotiating skills and an eye for quality in literature and art. But would her boss, the wealthy (and authentic) J.P. Morgan, still acknowledge her prowess if he knew of her true ancestry? Conversely, can we blame her Black relatives for turning their collective backs on her family since the group has chosen to live as white folks?
The most challenging part of reading lies in accepting the new universe's rules into which the author tries to engross me. Of course, people like J.P. Morgan do not qualify as relatable with infinite money and resources, but Belle's struggle with her racial identity packs a punch. As she infiltrates high society, the element of intrigue always exists under the surface about whether the dignitaries know her secret or, in 1919, how much it would matter.
As historical fiction, the book describes a specific time post-Reconstruction and pre-Suffrage. Belle more than holds her own in her discussions and negotiations with wealthier and more powerful men, but she cannot escape the fears in the back of her mind. The inevitable happens when a subplot of romance appears; nonetheless, I was captivated enough with the story not to see it coming. I cared enough about the characters to feel sorry for them.
When you reach the end and figure out the author's message, you will want to know more about our heroine. How did she achieve deception for so long, and, more importantly, why was it necessary in 1910? As the story progresses and the "big reveals" do not happen or occur differently than you anticipated, you recognize this as a singular work by one of Upper St. Clair's most excellent alumnae, Marie Benedict.
(Note: I usually enjoy stories that create fiction from the kernels of truth in history. The story in the Author's Notes of how both writers united to make this happen is inspiring and not to be missed.)
Power Reviewer
Elizabeth@Silver's Reviews

Elizabeth@Silver'sReviews - Great History Lesson
What an excellent history lesson.

I didn't know of Belle da Costa Greene.
What an incredible woman in so many ways.

Belle da Costa Greene has to hide her identity of being a black woman as she works as the personal librarian of J.P. Morgan in a high profile job. Her mother had listed the family's race as white for the census bureau against her husband’s wishes.

Belle’s life wasn't an easy one, but her skills at buying and selling art and archiving and cataloging books earned her respect in this field.

THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN is another extremely well-researched, interesting, brought-to-life book of an unknown-to-me woman.

Historical fiction fans and those who are fans of art will devour this book. 5/5

This book was given to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
K Miller Arndt

Fascinating lady
How did I get this far in life without knowing about this incredible woman? Belle had goals and contrasting expectations from her parents. Belle was a gifted learner. Mother wanted her to pass for white so the family could experience the advantages of the White world; Father was a famous Black man working for the Black cause. This created a great chasm. Belle had to help support the family and had the skills and cunning to pass as white to work as the personal librarian for J. P. Morgan in the famous Morgan Library. We learn most about Belle. JP came across as loud, blustery, and demanding. The men she met were never her equal. She was always more clever. Belle's life was not easy; she struggled daily to maintain her secret. Marriage and children were not really an option. Success for her yet a hard, sometimes lonely road.

A Fascinating Life Story
A fascinating story of the life of Belle da Costa Greene (née Belle Marion Greener), J P Morgan’s trusted personal librarian, partner-in-art, and confidant. The book follows Belle as she, a colored woman passing as white, learns to navigate among a male-dominated art world and mingle with high society across continents as an influential representative of J P Morgan (and later his son) and his John Pierpont Morgan Library. While her path brought Belle professional success, influence, acclaim and rewards, it didn’t come without high risks, personal sacrifices, the burden of familial responsibilities and loneliness as told in this compelling novel.

“I wonder sometimes if the sacrifice I made to have this success is worth it.” (Belle in a conversation with her father)

As a side note - this book will be an excellent read for book clubs! There are many potential topics for engaging discussion.
Dorinne D

Another Winner from Marie Benedict
Another winning historical novel by Marie Benedict, this one takes place beginning in the early 1900's when Belle da Costa Greene is hired by wealthy financier J.P. Morgan to catalog, organize and assist in the acquisition of rare books and manuscripts for his personal library. With the Morgan fortune at her disposal, Belle becomes a very shrewd and successful negotiator in procuring the most sought-after items for the library. 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. Propelling the story throughout were Belle's secret and the tragedy of her romantic life. Truly a novel not to be missed. I had the pleasure of reading this as an “Advance Reader Copy” from BookBrowse; it will be on sale to the public on June 1, 2021.
Robin M. (Newark, DE)

Feels like a biography
Is it historical fiction? Is it a biography? I'm not quite sure, but I enjoyed this book very much. The authors were careful in their research and created lively and interesting characters, well-described settings and wardrobes and some very intense plot twists. The complexities of "passing" and the risks of doing this in the early 1900s are very apparent in the book and, sadly, remain relevant today.

I will be recommending this to my Fact & Fiction book club because I enjoyed reading it, it is a well-written book, and because it blurs the lines between fact and fiction.
Carole C. (Newtown Square, PA)

Another Great Story!
Marie Benedict writes fantastic historical fiction novels and she's written another one with THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN. I haven't read anything by Victoria Christopher Murray, but definitely will after this book. This was a wonderful collaboration about a woman named Belle da Costa Greene who was the librarian and curator for J. P. Morgan's library of rare books and manuscripts. She tells the story of how she gains respect in the auction world, which is male dominated with her knowledge of rare books as well as her business sense. The struggle she has is she's a light skinned African American woman trying to pass for a caucasian woman. She does this because that is the only way she could get a job like this one. She's worried her secret will be discovered and she won't be able to help provide for her family. Her struggle with denying her true identity is very thought provoking throughout the book. I found her story to be very interesting and it kept me wanting to read about her. We need to learn more about amazing women like Belle who was an important part of history, but no one ever knew her story.

Beyond the Book:
  Belle da Costa Greene

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