J. P. Morgan was looking for someone to curate and oversee his the library he was building – a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork. He hired Belle de Costa Greene – a woman of Portuguese descent. She had all the knowledge necessary of the important rare works, and with Morgan’s finances and support she became fierce competitor in the rare antiquities market, intimidated by no one (other than Mr. Morgan).
But Belle had a secret. She was not of Portuguese descent. She was black. A negro. And in the 1920’s a black woman was not allowed to be so educated or rubbing elbows with the rich and famous (unless it was as a servant). But Belle’s light shade of skin allowed her to pass as a white woman. To do so, however, meant turning her back on who she really was, as well as constantly being wary of saying or doing the wrong thing or having someone uncover her secret.
I am quite new to the world of historical fiction books, but I’ve really come to appreciate a well-written tome in this genre. And The Personal Librarian is very well written.
Authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray have clearly done an incredible amount of research but they have not only presented a great deal of fascinating history, they’ve presented a very believable series of raw emotions of a woman who is both in her element (extremely knowledgeable about rare art antiquities) and out of her element (a black woman who has the absolute trust and support of one of the world’s wealthiest men of the time).
There is a brief section dealing with a romance and the consequences of that romance that feels out of place with the rest of the book. This may be historically accurate and I recognize that some of the emotional trauma comes in to play much later in the book, but this felt like pandering to a particular readership and I didn’t think it was necessary. If it were not included in the book, I would not have missed it as everything else about Belle and her work in the library and her secret as a black woman isn’t impacted by the romance. For me, the suggestion and hint at a possible relationship with J.P Morgan was enough (and that’s all I’ll say about that).
I am not familiar with either author so I can’t speak to recognizing who wrote which parts. This blended well and these two authors most clearly worked well as a team.
Looking for a good book? I very much enjoyed learning about Belle da Costa Greene, the librarian for the J. P Morgan library of rare books and art through the historical fiction novel, The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, and you will, too.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Personal Librarian
authors: Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
publisher: Berkley Books
hardcover, 341 pages