REVIEW: The Personal Librarian by by Marie Benedict and 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 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.

Warnings: depictions and discussions of racism, depictions of misogyny, forced abortion

Category: M/F

The Personal Librarian is a historical and biographical fiction about the life and career of Belle de Costa Greene, the personal librarian of JP Morgan. It follows her rise in the art and literature world in the 1900s, and explores her and her families experiences as African-American, and their decision to live as white-passing in a racist society, and how this decision impacts their lives. It certainly covers some difficult subject matter, but is a very compelling read.

The story goes through the life of Belle de Costa Greene, who was a real person who lived from 1879 to 1950. The book starts at the beginning of her career as a librarian, and it is told in a very intimate first person POV, present tense. The story concerns this career, how she rose to fame as the librarian of JP Morgan, and all of the twists and turns in the arts world. It’s primary focus however, outside of this career, is in exploring the rationale for hiding her race in order to get ahead in a very racist society, and the impacts of this decision on herself, and her family. While these are of course fictionalized versions of real people and we can never know for certain all of the ways that everyone might have felt, this story explores family feuds resulting from this decision as well as questions of morality. Is it wrong to make a decision that could give your children a better life, even if they have to deny their own identity to do it? What about the community you leave behind, are they right to resent this decision? Is ‘passing’ truly a privilege when you have to live constantly in fear of discovery, and does it make you a traitor to use it? These are the questions the narrative wrestles with, and raises for the reader. It doesn’t draw any conclusions either, letting the reader sit with them and ponder them.

This is a book that has a lot of complicated emotional qualities. As it’s POV is very intimately on Belle’s shoulders, we get to know Belle very well. Various relationships are explored as well, like her relationship with her mother and with her estranged father, who left due to disagreeing with her mother’s decision to raise her and her siblings white. These relationships help to flesh out the book’s characters as people, with a complexity that is very well woven. Other characters are also explored, including JP Morgan’s suffragette daughter who, at least in this book, is a lesbian with her own secrets to keep. I will say however a warning that this book does cover some seriously heavy, potentially triggering subject matter, racism being of course the biggest one with a lot of very frank explorations of racism in the early 1900s. Other warnings I would give is for the portion of the plot dedicated to a forced abortion and the toll this takes on Belle both emotionally and physically.

The world of art and literature in the early 1900s is the stage for this novel, and the authors clearly well researched its ups and downs and how it functioned. Belle is a librarian managing the personal collection of JP Morgan, the famous financier and banker who created JP Morgan and Co. His collection, tastes, and relentless pursuit of certain rare manuscripts is heavily explored here, as well as Belle’s infamously ruthless tactics in procuring for him everything he wanted. Art auctions and elicit dealings all explored with such interesting pizzazz it makes you want to learn more about the art featured in this book. It also explores a little bit about JP Morgan himself, what he might have been like as an employer, what his relationship with Belle was like, what some of his viewpoints were concerning art and politics. As a period piece, it does an excellent job in putting the reader into the time period as well as the specific niche of the world that it occupies.

The story explores Belle’s relationships with a few different men, principally a man named Bernard, and JP Morgan himself. There are a few instances of sex on the page, with her lover Bernard, a man she comes to have a whirlwind sexual and romantic entanglement with. These passages are primarily emotional in nature, exploring how she feels about her experiences with him and her own sexual coming of age. There is a long build up during which they court before they come together and consummate their long engagement. However, this relationship ends in heartbreak, as Belle discovers Bernard is not as charming as he initially appears through his treatment of her when she becomes accidentally pregnant. She also, over the course of the book, has a serious attraction and connection with her employer, and though this relationship is never sexually consummate, it feels just as intimate if not moreso as her relationship with the romantic Bernard.

This was a fascinating read and if you enjoy historical fiction, especially historical bibliographic fiction. If you want a book that will challenge you, and covers a lot of heavy subject matter in a way that is both thought provoking and engaging, I highly suggest this one.

Have you read The Personal Librarian? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!


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