The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

“A colored girl named Belle Marion Greener would never have been considered for a job with Mr. J. P. Morgan. Only a white girl called Belle da Costa Greene would have that opportunity.”

– Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, “The Personal Librarian”

Review:

It took me longer than I expected to finish this book. I started it on January 1st, when it was still in the Christmas season (think the 12 days of Christmas), thus my first picture. I passed up on the opportunity to get this one through Book of the Month Club because I found a great Kindle deal. I read the book entirely on Kindle, but did check it out briefly from my local library along with a slough of other books just to see it in print and take a few photographs that didn’t feature the cover in black and white. The pacing of the first half of this book made it easy for me to get distracted by other books. If it weren’t one of my 52 Book Club challenge books, I might not have made myself push through the last half of the book to finish.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, the personal librarian and art dealer for the financial giant, J. P. Morgan. Born as Belle Marion Greener, a colored girl from Washington D. C, she must do everything possible to hide her secret, her heritage, and pass as a white woman. Her career and her family’s financial and social future depend on it. In a world where the promises of the Reconstruction failed before her birth, it is up to Belle, to ensure that her family does not fall prey to the harsh realities of segregation and white supremacy.

The authors present Belle as a multifaceted character, who not only must deal with dismissing her heritage and identity, but also losing ties to her father and her mother’s family in her rouse as a white woman. The authors present a conflicted character, who also must learn to navigate a social strata that she was not born to and that is often as dangerous as it is perplexing. Belle exhibits both confidence and anxiety in equal measure.

J. P. Morgan truly shines as a character in this story, equally alongside Belle. He is, as he was in life, larger than life. But through Belle’s eyes we are able to see him as a person with longings and wounds just like any other. I immensely enjoyed reading about the complex relationship Belle had with her employer. However, not all of Belle’s relationships are as well rounded and believable as her relationships with her family members and Mr. Morgan. Belle’s romance fell flat for me and didn’t spark any kind of empathy or excitement. It was difficult to root for either Belle or her lover in the context of this story.

Still, I didn’t read this story for the romance, and although it is a major factor in Belle’s life, it isn’t the driving force of this story. So although the romance didn’t do it for me, this was still a four star reading experience. The romance didn’t ruin the book. I read this story to find Belle da Costa Green and Belle Marion Greener and come to understand how one person can be two people in two separate worlds. I read this story to learn more about J. P. Morgan, a figure about whom I teach in my U. S. History courses. I’ve always found him to be an intriguing man; a industrial giant, a vicious businessman, something of a scoundrel, a gracious philanthropist. Just like Belle, “Pierpont” as he liked to be called, contained multitudes. His character in this story does not disappoint. I walked away with a furthered appreciation for him and for the art and books that he collected.

I encourage lovers of historical fiction as well as those interested in the history of race in America to give this novel a chance. You’ll be glad you did.

“Segregation is really just slavery by another name, lynching is one of its proponents’ weapons, and we would be subjected to segregation and threatened by lynchings if we lived as colored anywhere in this country.”

Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, “The Personal Librarian”

Pros:

  • rich inner monologue for the main character
  • tension continues to build throughout the novel
  • larger than life character of Mr. J. P. Morgan

Cons:

  • slower pacing for the first half makes the story more difficult to get through
  • the romance falls a bit flat

Rating:

  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐

“One day, Belle, we will be able to reach back through the decades and claim you as one of our own. Your accomplishments will be part of history; they’ll show doubtful white people what colored people can do. Until that time, live your life proudly.”

– Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, “The Personal Librarian”

Recommended For:

  • students of Gilded Age history
  • lovers of historical fiction
  • book lovers
  • art lovers
  • those who are curious how people crossed the color line and “passed” for white

Books to Read if You Loved The Personal Librarian:

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a questions and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • What all do we lose when we ignore a part of ourselves for career success?
  • Were you compelled to do research or read further about any of the characters presented in this novel? If so, who?
  • J.P. Morgan and his contemporaries are remembered both for being relentless businessmen who ruined fortunes and underpaid their workers without providing safe working conditions as well as generous philanthropists who practiced the “social gospel”, taking responsibility for bringing hospitals, museums, and public works projects to the American people. Is J.P. Morgan a hero or a villain in this story? What about in real life?

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