Summary and book reviews of The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict

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 7, 2022, 352 pages

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Book Summary

The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan's personal librarian--who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict and acclaimed author 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 on the New York society scene 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 build 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 to which she must go--for the protection of her family and her legacy--to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.

Chapter 1

November 28, 1905
Princeton, New Jersey

The Old North bell tolls the hour, and I realize that I'll be late. I long to break into a sprint, my voluminous skirts lifted, my legs flying along the Princeton University pathways. But just as I gather the heavy material, I hear Mama's voice: Belle, be a lady at all times. I sigh; a lady would never run.

I release the fabric and slow down as I weave through Princeton's leafy Gothic landscape, designed to look like Cambridge and Oxford. I know I must do nothing to draw any kind of extra attention. By the time I pass Blair Arch, my stride is quick but acceptable for a lady.

It's been five years since I left our New York City apartment for this sleepy New Jersey college town, and the quiet is still unnerving. On the weekends, I wish I could return to the energy of New York, but the sixty cents for a train ticket is outside our family's budget. So, I send money home instead.

As I duck under a crenellated tower, I moderate my pace so I won't be...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How might you explain Belle's rise to such breathtaking heights in society and her profession at a time when women—especially African American women—faced such blatant discrimination and exclusion? Did Belle possess certain personality traits that yielded this incredible outcome? If so, what are they? What sorts of outside influences contributed to her ascent?
  2. In some ways, Belle's parents had somewhat unique experiences or backgrounds for African American people during this time period. What kind of reaction did you have to her parents' histories? How might those histories have impacted Belle, even when she had not been told the details of her parents' pasts?
  3. How did you view Belle's relationship with her mother? Do you ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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)...continued

Full Review Members Only (614 words).

(Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Media Reviews

NPR
Benedict, who is white, and Murray, who is African American, do a good job of depicting the tightrope Belle walked, and her internal conflict from both sides—wanting to adhere to her mother's wishes and move through the world as white even as she longed to show her father she was proud of her race. Like Belle and her employer, Benedict and Murray had almost instant chemistry, and as a result, the book's narrative is seamless. And despite my aversion to the passing trope, I became hooked.

Kirkus Reviews
The real Belle left scant records, so the authors must flesh out her personal life...But Belle's mask of competence and confidence, so ably depicted, distances readers from her internal clashes, just as her veneer must have deterred close inquiry in real life. Strangely stuffy and muted.

Publishers Weekly
[P]owerful... Benedict and Murray do a great job capturing Belle's passion and tenacity as she carves a place for herself in a racist male-dominated society. This does fine justice to a remarkable historical figure.

Booklist (starred review)
[A] resounding tale of a brilliant and resilient woman defying sexism, classism, and racism during the brutality of Jim Crow. Benedict and Murray do splendidly right by Belle in this captivating and profoundly enlightening portrayal.

Library Journal (starred review)
This fictional account of Greene's life feels authentic; the authors bring to life not only Belle but all those around her. An excellent piece of historical fiction that many readers will find hard to put down.

Author Blurb Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Woman with the Blue Star
An extraordinary tale that is both brilliant historical fiction and an important and timely commentary on racism. By holding up an unflinching mirror and illuminating this little-known chapter in American history, these two gifted authors have penned a work that is a must-read.

Author Blurb Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue
A marvel of a story. This unflinching look at one woman's meteoric rise through New York's high society is enthralling, lyrical, and rife with danger. Belle's painful secret and her inspiring courage will capture – and break – your heart. Serious kudos to Benedict and Murray for bringing this true story to life.

Author Blurb Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of A Good Neighborhood
The Personal Librarian illuminates the extraordinary life of an exceptional, intelligent woman who had to make the impossible choice to live as an imposter or sacrifice everything she'd achieved and deserved. That Belle denied her true identity in order to protect herself and her family from racial persecution speaks not only to her times but also to ours, a hundred years later. All that glitters is not gold. This is a compelling and important story.

Reader Reviews

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 ...   Read More
Gabi

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 ...   Read More
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 ...   Read More
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 ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Belle da Costa Greene

Belle da Costa Greene Belle da Costa Greene was an American librarian who ran the private library belonging to banker John Pierpont Morgan (better known as J.P. Morgan) and later to his son. During her time working for the Morgans, Greene acquired many rare books, manuscripts and other items for her employers, ultimately contributing to what is now an impressive public collection.

Born Belle Marion Greener in 1879, she grew up in Washington, D.C. Her father, Richard Theodore Greener, was the first Black man to graduate from Harvard University. Richard was a lawyer, an activist who wrote and spoke about issues facing Black Americans, and an enthusiastic reader and book collector. Belle's mother, Genevieve Ida Fleet, was a music teacher from a prominent ...

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