THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN
by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
Berkley/Penguin Random House
2021, 344 pages, $17
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The time is the late 1800s. The place is New York City and, occasionally, Washington, D.C. The main character is Belle da Costa Greene (but whose real name is Belle Marion Greener) who, with her education, wit and wisdom, becomes a self-made professional and personal librarian to the world-renowned business tycoon, J.P. Morgan. Her mission: build and enhance the personal library holdings of the financial mogul and the Pierpont Morgan Library, all the while maintaining a pretense of being a white girl of Portuguese descent, when being, actually, Black.
And to be Black at the turn of the last century, as today, is costly, dearly, in terms of making a living or just staying alive, if not for the grace of those who are progressive and life-affirming. Belle is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first African American graduate of Harvard University. Belle yearns to make a difference and fulfill her father’s hopes and dreams of complete equality, despite a racist world. But Belle is afraid that her “secret” of being Black will be uncovered by society, and her fears linger. To Belle, it would be even worse for her if J.P. Morgan himself found out.
But Belle rises to every occasion, escaping scrutiny and prejudgment by her quick wit and expansive knowledge of art, forging a deep, lasting and trusting relationship with the financier. Although she trips and stumbles sometimes in her private life, making some connections that jeopardize her secret, she bonds emotionally, and physically, with the expert collector, Bernard Berenson. She falls in love with the married man and gets pregnant. Oh does she worry!
The progress that her father envisioned for a brief time with civil rights legislation overturned remains gut-wrenching. Belle survived the subsequent havoc that event created in her own family, while living and thriving as “Belle.”
Belle is a fighter, smart and keen, an extraordinary soul who wins the day, despite her fears and tribulations. THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN is a satisfying historical novel, one that will resonate on historical fiction bookshelves for years to come.