The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict
New Adult, Biographical Historical Fiction
June 29, 2021
Kindle, Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook
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.
Bringing recognition to an amazing historical figure.
Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray share the amazing life of Belle da Costa Greene in The Personal Librarian. Born Belle Greener, a black American in D.C. in the late 1800s, her mother changed their name to Greene and settled her and her siblings in NYC as a white family, after her father, the first black graduate from Harvard and international renowned attorney, left them. Ms. Greene’s journey from librarian to curator of one of the preeminent libraries of historically significant works, with the backing of J.P. Morgan, and her courage to not only move freely in a white, male dominated world but her intelligence and tenacity to excel in it, is an interesting and inspirational tale.
While the life of Belle da Costa Greene is fascinating, Benedict and Murray’s fictional storytelling of her life in The Personal Librarian came up short for me in a number of areas. While the vocabulary and style of speaking of characters should fit with the times and station of those people, the narration of a non-academic book, marketed to the masses, should use vocabulary that the majority of people can understand easily. There are many uses of formal and obscure words that are anything but colloquial. I also struggled with seeing the direction of their story. I realize that this was a fictional interpretation of a real person’s life and work however, I felt like I was on a bit of an aimless walk through the woods; the scenery was interesting, with a few unexpected sights, but no real destination. I also struggled to become attached to Benedict and Murray’s Belle. While I have great admiration for all Ms. Greene accomplished, especially given her situation, I felt like they didn’t balance out her perfection and success enough.
The story of Belle da Costa Greene in The Personal Librarian is an inspiring saga that highlights a truly amazing woman. The authors do an amazing job transporting their readers to the Gilded Age with a historically accurate and visually rich fictional telling of a real trailblazer for not only women but African Americans. Benedict and Murray’s work introduces new generations to someone whose true story was hidden in life behind an identity, cultivated to navigate a very different time and mindset, but who deserves to be more fully understood and remembered.
Tanya’s love for books has been a lifelong passion that she likes sharing with others. Reading is also the thing that relaxes her after a day of juggling the many responsibilities that come with being being wife to an amazing man, mother to four great kids spread around the world, business manager, and farm hand on their place in southwest Missouri; home to Akaushi cattle and a menagerie of pygmy goats, horses, chickens, dogs and cats.