The Personal Librarian

The Personal Librarian

by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray
Setting: New York
Genres: Fiction / African American & Black / Women, Fiction / Biographical, Fiction / Historical / General
Published on June 7, 2022
Pages: 352
Format: eBook Source: Library

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 in New York City society 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 create 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 she must go to—for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.

I didn’t have high hopes for this book. I had tried to listen to these author’s latest book and had to DNF it. It was painful to listen to. The writing was clunky because they tried to explain so much through either dialogue that no one would actually say or over the top descriptions of surroundings that didn’t blend into a coherent story.

This book ended up being better though. I’m not sure if that’s because I read it instead of listening to it. That may have let me smooth over the flaws in the writing.

This story held my attention. I didn’t know anything about the Pierpont Morgan library. It was revolutionary that a woman was in charge of it in the first decades of the twentieth century. If anyone would have found out that she was a Black woman, that would have been the end for her.

That leads me to one of my major criticisms of this book. It ends with her never having been exposed. So, how did these authors know she was Black? That’s the kind of information that I would have expected to see in the historical note. It wasn’t even mentioned. I had to Google to find out that a biographer working on her story in 1999 found her original birth certificate and figured it out from there. It seemed a really odd detail to leave out.

Overall I enjoyed the story and learning about this woman. I might give their other book a try again (but absolutely not on audio) because I was enjoying learning the story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Bethune too.