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Earlier this month I made a goal to try to read at least one book per month. Actually, I made the decision as a result of this post because, as I was going through my reading list, I realized a lot of my book choices were dated. Not that literature ever goes out of style, but that I came to realization that I haven’t really read anything current and that bothered me. So I did a search for online book groups, because accountability, and I found that the Good Morning America Book Club is reading The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. A book about a librarian and a Black librarian at that? Yeah, I decided to make this my first read. I’ll post a few “bookstagram” pictures at my literary Instagram account so I can discuss with the GMA Book Club on Instagram. The goal, because accountability, is to announce my current read at the beginning of the month and share my review at the end of the month.
Title: The Personal Librarian
Author: Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
Genre: Historical Fiction
ABOUT THE BOOK (from the book)
A remarkable novel about J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, the Black American woman who was forced to hide her true identity and pass as white in order to leave a lasting legacy that enriched our nation, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict, and acclaimed author Victoria Christopher Murray.
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Marie Benedict is a lawyer with more than ten years’ experience as a litigator. A graduate of Boston College and the Boston University School of Law, she is the New York Times and USAToday bestselling author of The Only Woman in the Room, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, Carnegie’s Maid, The Other Einstein, and Lady Clementine. All have been translated into multiple languages. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family.
Victoria Christopher Murray is one of the country’s top African American contemporary authors with more than one million books in print. She has written more than twenty novels, including the Seven Deadly Sins series and Stand Your Ground, a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. She holds an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business.
This book was well researched and incredibly well written. There was a lot of detail about the purchasing of art that I could have done without. But that information did help to move the story along towards the end, when Belle has to come to terms with the betrayal by her lover. Because the novel is written in first person, we get inside Belle’s head, which helps to understand the very real danger and fear that shrouded her daily life. I’m not sure that I would’ve had the strength to endure all that she did and still stay on top of my game career wise. Belle was a strong woman.
I think I expected to find out how Belle used her position as a librarian/curator to advance the cause of Black people. And, to that end, I was disappointed. Not that I expected her to come right out and say “I’m Black,” but more in the way that wanted her to wield some influence over J.P. Morgan for the cause of civil rights. That being said, I also recognize that Belle was not in the position to do that. And, in some ways, maybe her influence was much larger than if she’d pushed on behalf of Black folks, after all, she did become a one-woman curatorial force in the art and book world. She had more power and more of a career than most women during her lifetime. She proved that women – Black women – are more than capable.
In the end, I was sad for Belle. As much as she is lauded for being a powerhouse in the art world, she didn’t get there as herself. Not only did she have to deny who she was, she had to deny the legacy her father left her. On some level that had to be heartbreaking.
This novel is a creative take on an historical figure who left precious little in the way of primary sources in order to preserve her secret. However, if your book group is looking for a discussion-worthy read, this is it.
MY FAVORITE PASSAGE
That we should not be defined by how many drops of African blood run in our veins, but by our character and our deeds. That we should not be ashamed of our heritage and we all, blacks and coloreds alike, should unify in our fight against prejudice. Your act goes against everything I stand for and everything I’ve worked for-“
“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.”
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