Set during the hustle and bustle of New York in the early 1900s, this historical fiction is based on the true story of Belle da Costa Greene, born Belle Marion Greener, and how she became J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian.
Belle begins her journey working at Princeton and gets the opportunity to interview with the well-known J.P. Morgan. Belle wows him at her interview and before she knows it, her life is turned upside down. She is gaining Morgan’s trust and purchasing wildly expensive and rare books, art, and collectibles for the library.
But she always worries her deepest secret will be revealed: she is a woman of color pretending to be white.
Belle is a real person and the authors didn’t glamorize her, she has faults like any other person, also fears and doubts about hiding her true identity and trying to survive in a white man’s world. Her character development is remarkable as she grows from a young woman working at Princeton to a highly-renowned expert librarian in the collectible book and art world.
Belle is a rebellious protagonist that goes against the grain to maintain a prestigious position within a social class she does not belong to. She bids at auctions, travels the world, gains power and respect, all as a woman of color.
J.P. Morgan is a more widely-known historical figure and it was interesting to learn more about what his personal life was like as opposed to his business successes. He’s portrayed as stern and strict, sometimes angry and inflexible. He has intricate relationships with each of his children and the authors don’t try to paint him as the perfect family man or businessman. Morgan agonizes over making the right decisions and longs to create a legacy that will last an eternity.
We get to meet several other characters in the book as well- Belle’s mother, father, and siblings, as well as art and book collectors, businessmen, and Morgan’s family. I liked the open family connections created by her mother and siblings all living together in a New York City apartment.
My favorite parts include the rare books and collectibles, the fashion trends worn by Belle and her acquaintances, and Belle’s cunning plans to secure her beloved books. I think I would have liked the earlier version of Belle, but she became so obsessed with this larger-than-life persona that she was a bit too much by the end.
The Personal Librarian has the typical feel of historical fiction with a romanticized version of the early 1900s. Obviously, race and gender discrimination are the main points discussed in the book. Belle is a woman of color which means that even after segregation has technically ended, she is still part of the lowest class in America at that time. She agonizes over her decision to live as a white person and constantly struggles to keep her secret. Being discovered would mean the end of her life as she knew it, or even death.
I’m not a true historical fiction fan so I’m very picky and there were a few too many historical rants here for my taste. They came across as more educational than entertaining. If you’re interested in learning more about the political and economical states of the country during the early 1900s, then you’ll enjoy these parts more than I did.
The authors note they took some liberties to reorder real events and create dialogue that culminated in an incredibly interesting story. Both authors did an excellent job, I think a lot of research and thought went into creating a readable and enjoyable story from a real person’s life.
The Personal Librarian is excellently written by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. The two create a perfect tale of the real-life Belle da Costa Greene that will have readers hooked from the start. I really enjoyed this book and I hope you do too.