"The Personal Librarian" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Author Marie Benedict, familiar to those who relish her historical novels about famous women, impresses with in her newest, “The Personal Librarian,” co-written by Victoria Christopher Murray.
In their author notes at the end of this immersive read about Belle da Costa Greene, personal librarian to the illustrious banker J.P. Morgan, the two women, Benedict, who’s White, and Murray, who’s Black, speak to their combined efforts and the difficulties that arose on their joint project, which lead to a fast friendship.
Because of COVID, they hadn’t met before they became writing partners, in a year when racial unrest boiled over surrounding George Floyd’s tragic death. The racial divide the country experienced, and continues to struggle with, mirrors the divide that Greene experienced in her lifetime, (1883-1950).
Through daily communication, sometimes talking for hours at a time, the authors created a comprehensive, fascinating narrative based on a woman ahead of her time who rose to notoriety and world renown when females didn’t hold positions of power or prestige.
Greene’s accomplishments were even more extraordinary considering she was Black, but passed herself off as White. She did so at her mother’s urging, as a means to have a better life and secure the coveted librarian position created to help Morgan increase his manuscript collection at the Pierpont Morgan Library constructed near his New York City home.
Greene’s mother believed that God had gifted the family with their light skin. This proved to be an affront to her husband, Richard T. Greener the first Black man to graduate from Harvard, and an early advocate of Black rights. Their discrepancy climaxed with Richard Greene leaving his family. His wife and children were left to support themselves—another reason Belle’s guise was necessary.
Benedict and Murray have created an addictive character study on Belle La Costa Greene that hones close to the facts about this complicated woman. When they do take liberties with Belle’s personal life, for the sake of the narrative, their imaginings present a portrait of a woman proud of her intellect and prowess in obtaining valuable manuscripts for the museum, daring in dress, yet conflicted in a life-long love affair and forever anxious about having her racial secret divulged.
There’s much to love about “The Personal Librarian,” the focus on actual people who lived during this time is compelling, many of them rich and famous, throwing lavish parties that Belle’s position necessitated she attend as she gradually gained respect in a male-dominated world. Her relationship with J.P. Morgan is central to the book too—an intriguing relationship that occasionally blurred the lines between employer and employee.
This superlative historical fiction novel will keep readers thoroughly engaged.