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The Personal Librarian

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This is a previously-published edition of ISBN 9780593101537.

The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan's personal librarian—who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, 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 on the New York society scene 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 build 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 to which she must go—for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.

341 pages, Hardcover

First published June 29, 2021

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About the author

Marie Benedict

16 books7,060 followers
Marie Benedict is a lawyer with more than ten years' experience as a commercial litigator at two of the country's premier law firms. While practicing as a NYC lawyer, Marie dreamed of a fantastical job unearthing the hidden historical stories of women -- and finally found it when she tried her hand at writing. She embarked on a new, thematically connected series of historical fiction excavating the stories of important, complex and fascinating women from the past with THE OTHER EINSTEIN, which tells the tale of Albert Einstein's first wife, a physicist herself. She then released CARNEGIE'S MAID, the story of a brilliant woman who may have spurred Andrew Carnegie toward philanthropy, followed by the B&N Book Club pick and NYTimes bestseller THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM, the tale of the Golden Age of Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr who made a world-changing invention, and LADY CLEMENTINE about Winston Churchill's wife. She then wrote the Costco pick and NYTimes bestseller THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE which focuses on the real-life disappearance of Agatha Christie and the role it played in shaping her into the world's most successful novelist. In her first co-written novel with the talented Victoria Christopher Murray, Marie released the NYTimes bestselling and Good Morning America Book Club pick THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN about Belle da Costa Greene, the personal librarian to J.P, Morgan who hid a secret about her identity -- and that was followed by HER HIDDEN GENIUS about the brilliant British scientist Rosalind Franklin who discovered the structure of DNA but her research was taken and used by James Watson and Francis Crick. Coming this January 2023 is THE MITFORD AFFAIR, an explosive novel of history's most notorious sisters -- the brilliant, aristocratic Mitfords --, one of whom will have to choose her country or her family as the sisters get caught in the crosshairs of WWII.

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5 stars
38,364 (34%)
4 stars
46,836 (42%)
3 stars
20,152 (18%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 10,799 reviews
Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,067 reviews38.1k followers
January 5, 2023
Well, I never considered myself as the biggest fan of historical fictions. It’s not my favorite genre. But when I get a chance to read about real life story of Belle de Costa Greene, I couldn’t say no to this journey! I was so intrigued, curious about that bold, creative, visionary, strong woman’s story who has created a brand new, outstanding, inspirational page in the history.

She’s known as chosen librarian of J. P. Morgan whose main purpose to curate Pierpont Morgan Library. She’s the black woman who is passing as white at the racist time of the history, working at the field which is dominated by male colleagues.

Defining her as a librarian is not fair declaration because she’s unique curating and collecting skills of rare books help her to achieve an outstanding job. She also efficient worker to conduct her daily administrative tasks alongside her heavy responsibilities and as she juggles several balls above her head, she also feels the pressure on her shoulders to keep her race as a big secret which is a quite burden to deal with at this era!

The book also reflects the sensitive triggering issues about Black American history and Black women movement: how they struggle to raise their voices, how they try so hard to adjust in the society as they fight against discrimination and restrictions to become a part of the community! Especially the black people’s rights to have college education and assimilation they’d endured were remarkable and thought provoking parts of the book.

Overall: this is educational, inspirational and also strongly provocative, well executed, extremely engrossing book I couldn’t put down!
I adored the layered, impressive characterization and unforgettable story of Belle de Costa Greene.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing for sharing this amazing digital reviewer copy with me in exchange my honest opinions.
Profile Image for Jacqie.
1,574 reviews71 followers
June 26, 2021
Thanks to Netgalley for providing a copy of this book for review.

This just wasn't the book I expected. I am a huge book lover, used to work in a book store, and have a graduate degree in history, so I was expecting to really enjoy a book about JP Morgan's personal librarian, who was responsible for developing the stunning Morgan Library in New York City (used to be the Pierpont Morgan Library). Belle de Costa Greene was also a Black woman passing as white while she was doing this amazing work.

I was hoping for details on the sorts of books acquired, how they were found, and how the library was curated. There was a bit of that, but the emphasis was more on Belle than on the books. The rare editions she secured seemed almost more like bragging rights than because of genuine love for the books themselves- at least that was what the book emphasized. Everything was for the glory of the library. Belle learned how to undercut prospective parts of the collection before they were auctioned, how to be a velvet glove covering a steel fist when it came to negotiations. These negotiations were more of the book than the research for how to choose prospective new pieces for the library. Art was a surprisingly large part of library acquisitions as well.

Belle was really a dealer in rare books and choice art more than she was a librarian- at least as I understand the word librarian. The book also spent quite a bit of time on her love life, which I didn't care about and which wasn't written in a way that made me want to root for any of the participants.

I skimmed to the end of this book because I was getting impatient with it. It was written by two authors and I've got to give Marie Benedict for co-authoring with a Black author who could speak to the difficulties of passing and who had a different, deeper understanding into Belle. However, the language felt a bit stilted to me and I felt distanced from the characters. I also didn't like the emphasis on books and art as prizes to be won instead of artifacts to treasure. I guess it just wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Debbie.
685 reviews425 followers
December 24, 2021
This biographical fiction is the story of illustrious American financier, J. P. Morgan's renowned personal librarian, Belle de Costa Greene, an extraordinary woman of her time, famous for her intelligence and knowledge of the art and book world, building up New York's Pierpont Morgan Library, all the while hiding her true ethnicity as a Black woman.

Another 5-star book for me because:
1. I am truly impressed that although Marie Benedict can hold her own as a historical fiction writer, she was humble enough to recognize her limitations and enlist the help of co-author Victoria Christopher Murray in order to make Belle's personal story authentic;
2. the sophisticated writing had me so enthralled that I felt transported back in time to Belle's world;
3. Belle's character is truly multifaceted - I felt her confident knowledge in her work and also her dreaded anxiety at being found out for passing as a white woman;
4. this story really opened my eyes to the period of the Reconstruction Era after America's Civil War, which led to Jim Crow laws, inciting hatred and bigotry through segregation and white supremacy, making it impossible for a Black man (never mind a Black woman!) to "get ahead". It's no wonder why a colored person, such as Belle, would try to pass for white; and,
5. Marie Benedict's Author's Note, Victoria Christopher Murray's Author's Note, and the Historical Note found in this book are must-reads! I only wish that information was given as to when Belle's ethnicity was finally revealed!

ADDENDUM: Research from some diligent readers report that Belle's ethnicity was finally revealed after her death.

Another strong woman's story is finally told! Highly recommend!
Profile Image for Pavlína Černá.
28 reviews4 followers
March 15, 2021
When it comes to The Personal Librarian I cannot come to a single conclusion; I liked it but I also didn't like it. I was intrigued but I was also bored. I enjoyed it but I also rushed through it to get it over with.

Marie Benedict's and Victoria Christopher Murray's The Personal Library is a historical fiction based on the life of Belle da Costa Greene, born Belle Marion Greener. After J.P. Morgan builds the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, wanting to create the most impressive collection of books, art and manuscripts, he hires Belle to be his personal librarian. The year is 1905 and Jim Crow is creeping up north. While her light complexion, confidence and expertise in her field allow her to assimilate into high society, Belle has to be very careful not to reveal her African-American descent, which would ruin everything she has built.

This is not the first time Benedict brought a powerful female character from the past to life. Her book The Only Woman in the Room about an actress Hedy Lamarr, who was also a scientist in disguise helping fight the Nazis, was a very pleasant and interesting read. This time, together with Murray, the two wrote a story that also started very interestingly. Before it stopped being interesting.

The first half of the book, following Belle's assimilation into the society she knew she didn't belong in, felt thrilling and curious. It was fun to follow along—the more comfortable she felt, the sassier she became, flirting with men, asserting her position.

But the higher Belle rose, the more I started to feel disconnected from the character I became so fond of. Writing in first person is a challenge for the character's objectivity, which is forgivable. But the issue here comes from oddly constructed sentences that ended up sounding unrealistic even as thoughts, let alone spoken words.

When Belle described what it felt like to be in the back room of the museum restricted to employees only, and compared it to the magic of being backstage of a Broadway show, I felt pulled out of the story. How is this comparison helpful and how would the character ever know what being backstage is like?

Belle's thought "standing so close that I inhale every breath he exhales..." did not arouse feelings of intimacy but rather made me cringe.

The character started to feel indifferent, the story apathetic, the sentences carelessly put together. So many emotional events have been going on, yet none of it had any effect on me as the reader. I lost my connection to Belle.

After finishing the story, I launched an internet search to get to know the full story of Belle da Costa Greene and was pleasantly surprised by how faithful The Personal Librarian is to Belle's life. I am glad I came across it and got introduced to Belle.

While I cannot decide whether I overall liked it or not, one thing is certain — next time in New York, I will pay a visit to the Pierpont Morgan Library.
Profile Image for Cheyenne.
29 reviews14 followers
June 10, 2021
When I first saw the title and description of this book, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I entered every Goodreads giveaway that popped up for this book because I couldn't wait for the publication date. I finally received an e-ARC through Netgalley and began reading right away, only to find that the book did not live up to the hype I had built up for myself.
I appreciate the story of Marion Greener - known throughout most of her life as Belle de Costa Greene - being told: I think as Black women our stories have been hidden through force or necessity for far too long. However, this particular telling of her story just didn't do it for me. The dialogue frequently felt stilted or unnatural; instead of feeling like the dialogue was time-period appropriate I felt like it was written in a way that someone unfamiliar with the time would assume people in that era would speak. The way context was provided was also clunky sometimes, and I found it to be distracting from the story. I appreciated the author's notes and historical context at the end, but they also only furthered my confusion about a major parts of the storyline.
Some of my discontent is my own fault - I took frequent breaks while reading this book and so it seemed in some ways to drag on forever. I tend not to enjoy stories written in first person or the present tense, and yet I attempted to read this one. Reading this book ultimately ended up feeling like a chore, ultimately. I enjoyed the book at times but by the end was excited to finally be finished.
Profile Image for Liz.
1,917 reviews2,351 followers
August 7, 2022
4.5 stars, rounded down
I have very firm ideas about what encompasses a good historical fiction story. Luckily, this book manages to check off most of my demands. I want to learn about someone or something I was previously unaware of. Check. Belle La Costa Greene rose to a position of prominence in the art world when women were barely allowed to be anything but teachers, secretaries or shop girls. And she did it with minimal formal education and while passing as a white woman. I want the book to provide an in depth look at the time and place. Check. The book does a fabulous job of fleshing out the politics, business and society that Belle dealt with. And I want a story that totally engages me. Check.
I also really appreciated the portions of the book spent on outlining Belle’s parents and their diverse views on equality.
At the end, there were still questions I wish the authors had answered in their Notes. When did it “come out” that Belle was actually black? In a society as closed as The Four Hundred, how was Belle so easily accepted?
This is a book club selection and I highly recommend it for other book clubs looking for a strong discussion.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,285 reviews639 followers
August 2, 2021
Fans of author Marie Benedict will love ��The Personal Librarian”. She’s known for writing about unknown women in history. In this one, she showcases Bella de Costa Greene who curated J.P. Morgan’s personal library. Ms. Greene had a secret: she was black, passing as white.

J.P. Morgan was notoriously known as being racist and anti-sematic, which was accepted in the early 1900’s. Ms. Greene was able to be hired by Morgan and gain a reputation as being one of the world’s best library curators of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork. Her backstory is interesting in that her father was a minor character in fight for black equality. Meanwhile, her mother realized the value of passing as white in America.

I’m not a fan of her flowery language, although I believe she writes like that as that was the language of that time. As always, Benedict worked to make this fictional account of Bella’s life as accurate as possible. I do appreciate Benedict’s research and dedication to history.
Profile Image for Brooke Melville.
14 reviews1 follower
July 8, 2021
I wanted to love this book. I truly did. As a bibliophile and a lover of historical fiction in general, I was fascinated by this topic. I’ve read other stories - both straight fiction and historical fiction - centered on amazing women who have “passed” in order to achieve their dreams. Unfortunately, while Belle da Costa Greene’s life and accomplishments were extraordinary, this book was not. I found the book to be very boring, and I felt the depiction of Belle was quite pretentious. I was disappointed and considered abandoning the book. I’m glad I finished simply because it helped me learn more about this important historical figure. However, I wish the story had been better executed.
Profile Image for Elisabeth Plimpton.
167 reviews133 followers
August 14, 2021
An interesting book based on the true story of an extraordinary woman in history. The Personal Librarian brings to life the story of Belle da Costa Greene, who was an art curator and librarian to J.P. Morgan in the early 1900s in New York City. She was an intelligent, witty, and captivating woman! Belle was the daughter of Richard Greener, who was a lawyer, professor, civil rights advocate, and the first African American Harvard graduate. Belle’s mother’s family had lighter skin, and in turn could pass as white.

In order to move up the ranks in the art world, Belle changed her middle and last name and lived as a white woman. This book takes you through the stages of her life including her accomplishments, relationships, and inner family world. It describes how she was always worried that her true identity would come out and negatively affect her family, career, and legacy. Belle worked hard to protect her secret, and she never felt free to express her authentic self despite her appraised success.

This was my first novel from both of these authors. The book was well-written and researched! For me, it wasn’t a face-paced read. Rather, one that took time to absorb, as it discusses important issues and heavier historical topics, some of which are unfortunately still present in society today. The book educates and sheds light on the severe racial inequalities of the time, and what it was like to live in this highly segregated and prejudice era.

Overall, it was fascinating to learn about Belle’s life and achievements. She was a talented and remarkable woman, who’s story was overshadowed by powerful men and got lost in history. I am looking forward to reading other novels by these skilled authors!
Profile Image for capture stories.
108 reviews64 followers
January 27, 2022
Finally, finishing “The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.” The novel unravels and focuses on Belle, a woman of color who passes her life as a black woman and goes on living a life of a white woman because of her light skin color. Is her life fake or real? Will I judge her for that? These thoughts were constantly swirling in my head during the read. There were moments, as I have read, Belle contemplated; she hesitated on her choices. She, too, judged none other but herself for that life.

It all began when she was selected as the Librarian of the magnificent Pierpont Library back when racial discrimination was rampant all over the city. Yet, she was ever successful in building a legacy despite her humble background. In between chapters, choices, sacrifices, and secrets were discussed. Some ancient manuscripts, historical art pieces, historical dates, and places are mentioned here, which can be eye-opening and become perks of interest for some readers.

I find the writing styling like a journal rather fascinating. Though a fictional story, the book is set on a heavy tone of historical facts and events, thus making the story lengthy and dissipating one’s interest towards the second half of the book. Nonetheless, there were many other aspects regarding unusual love relationships, sexual differences, regrets, and the dynamics of the affluent families with the social norm back in the 1900s, making the storyline compelling and exciting. Having read the story from the first-person point of view allows me to engage in the inner thoughts of the main character Belle, sharing her secrets and learning from her mistakes and success.
Profile Image for Celia.
1,140 reviews140 followers
February 11, 2021
I am reading an early copy of this book. It is about Marion Greener, a light skinned black woman. In order to realize her dreams of a career, she changes her name to Belle LaCosta Greene, and passes herself off as white. She becomes the personal librarian for J. P. Morgan who is building and stocking his own personal library, the Pierpont Morgan Library.

I am reading this book during Black History Month. How ironic to be reading about a woman who feels that the only way to get ahead is to deny her blackness. It is 1903 and she is probably right, but I am saddened by this attitude.

Contrast that with another book I am reading, 42 Today. It is a book describing the activism of Jackie Robinson 45 years later. What a huge difference.

The Personal Librarian is very well written and in the voice of Belle. I think that Benedict has put the exact proper words in her mouth, depicting Belle as a highly educated speaker and thinker.

I recommend this historical fiction book as one that really makes you think.

4 stars
23 reviews1 follower
July 20, 2021
Fascinating person/topic. Painfully stilted writing. I should have read the non-fiction bio instead.
Profile Image for Kristina McMorris.
Author 13 books2,232 followers
February 5, 2021
So delighted to have had an early peek for a quote! I devoured the story while also learning so much. Here's my scoop:

“Upon starting this novel, be prepared to do nothing else until you’ve reached its poignant, reflective end. Through brilliant pacing and with painstaking care, Benedict and Murray paint a vibrant portrait of a woman whose accomplishments, relationships, and secretive history were as complex and intriguing as the collections she helped curate. The Personal Librarian is a timely, provocative read perfect for book clubs. I loved it.”
Profile Image for Rachael.
112 reviews9 followers
July 27, 2021
This was entirely okay. Kinda boring and bland. How do you take the life of someone so potentially fascinating and make it flat?
Profile Image for Cheryl James.
258 reviews165 followers
December 8, 2021
This is a Masterpiece of a story which needed to be told. The book was very informative, educational and left me interested in more about J.P. Morgan and his Personal Librarian (Belle da C0sta Greene). This book covered two of my most interesting topics in reading and that's Passing and Historical Facts and Fiction all into one. Being an African American woman it's sad for me that women and or men felt the need to pass for white just to have a good life but I can understand that people do what they need to do to be where they need to be in life. The one good thing about this passing is that Belle's family was there to support her and she did not have to leave her family behind. Whereas most people who pass for white have to leave their family and friends behind and they are never to return.

An excellent read and highly recommended. Kudos to the Authors, the Narrators and all involved!!

Belle da Costa Greene, was Smart, Elegant, and Family Oriented. She demanded and received the upmost respect from each and every race, all while being a Black Woman!!
Profile Image for Annette.
733 reviews314 followers
September 6, 2021
The Personal Librarian brings a story of Belle da Costa Greene, who became the personal librarian to J.P. Morgan and along the way - one of the most successful women of New York City of her time.

Princeton, New Jersey, 1905. Belle da Costa Greene while working at Princeton as a librarian gains a valuable knowledge of rare books and is recommended to J.P. Morgan who is looking for a curator for his rare collection. Belle’s father is the first African-American who attended Harvard and a prominent advocate for equality. Belle’s mother is on the opposite side, keeping things quiet and carefully guiding Belle and insisting on changing the name partially to give it a Portuguese flavor. So Belle could pretend to be of Portuguese heritage with her light complexion, while truly being African-American. Her mother sees it as the only way to achieve something in life.

Belle is ambitious and despite her young age and inexperience, she is good with her suggestions which grab attention of her benefactor. And him further introducing her to social circles of New York City. She takes part in attending social events as well as more serious events such as auctions.

Author Marie Benedict co-written this novel with African-American writer to give the story an authentic feel. What it meant for African-American to be educated, but not having the same opportunities as white people. I applaud both authors for this cooperation. However, the protagonist’s constant thought process of how she had to be careful what to say, how to dress and behave, how to impress dealers, collectors, and curators. It felt like a constant overshadowing of true character, who she truly was – a remarkable, smart, clever, ambitious woman who was a quick learner, skillfully navigating the high society and others.

I also thought that through this story we’d get to know J.P. Morgan better, but it feels as the only thing I learned about him was that he was a philanderer.

I’m not familiar with the style of writing of the co-author Victoria Christopher Murrary, but I’ve read all books by Marie Benedict and they are all fast-paced, except this book. This one has a slow pace and it was a bit of a challenge to stay engaged with this story.

P.S. Marie Benedict has an upcoming book Her Hidden Genius, which I highly recommend.
Profile Image for Marilyn.
748 reviews199 followers
August 8, 2021
What an extraordinary historical fiction novel these two talented authors, Marks Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray have succeeded in writing together! The talents of these two brilliant authors meshed together flawlessly to write this incredible novel, The Personal Librarian. Before reading The Personal Librarian, I had never heard of Belle da Costa Greene. Her story was one of courage and inspiration during a time when it was not only difficult for women to succeed in a man’s world but posed even more so for an African American woman. I listened to the audio CD that was well narrated by Robin Miles. The Personal Librarian, both a fascinating and timely historical fiction book , was meticulously researched.

Belle da Costa Greene was born Belle Marion Greener to African American parents. Her father, Richard Greener, was the first Black man to graduate from Harvard. Richard Greener believed strongly in and was an active advocate for equality for all. Belle and her father had a wonderful relationship and he encouraged her to set her goals high. Her mother, Genevieve, supported her husband’s beliefs until the family experienced racism first hand. Ultimately, Belle’s father left her mother. At that juncture in Belle’s life, her mother, a single parent that was raising her children by herself, encouraged her children to hide their ancestry and pass for white. Belle and her siblings had light complexions and were able to pass for white and live a life that afforded them many more opportunities. That was when Belle’s mother insisted that Belle change her name from Belle Marion Greener to Belle da Costa Greene. Her “dusky” complexion was explained away as a Portuguese family trait. Belle was forced to hide her true identity and pass for white if she wanted her dreams and inspirations to come to fruition.

Belle da Costa Greene was hired by J.P. Morgan as his personal librarian to curate his massive collection of rare manuscripts, books and artwork in the early 1900’s in New York City. At the Pierpont Morgan Library, Belle’s intellect, confidence, pleasing manner, style and wit made her indispensable to her employer, Mr. Morgan. J.P. Morgan was portrayed as a man who was extremely competitive, quite aggressive, opinionated, anti Semitic and racist. He was a family man but often had a mistress at his side. As the years progressed, J.P. Morgan began to rely more and more on Belle’s growing expertise. She was trusted to bid at auctions in Europe for valuable additions to Mr. Morgan’s expanding collection with no monetary limit. Belle was immersed into society and was expected to mingle and associate with the most powerful people in the art and book world. Her negotiating skills became indispensable to Mr. Morgan and she earned the respect of all that came to know her. Belle’s financial status improved greatly as she worked for Mr Morgan. He compensated her generously for her loyalty and successes in growing his library. She in turn supported her family and helped them live an easier and more comfortable life. All the time Belle advanced in her position and became more and more indispensable to Mr. Morgan, Belle had to live with the painful secret that she had hidden so well from both Mr. Morgan and the world.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray was about deceit and allegiance. It was both captivating and fascinating and depicted the life of such a courageous and brave woman that history had little to say about. Belle da Costa Greene was forced to live a guarded life, always afraid that her secret would be exposed. The Personal Librarian was a very timely novel. Although women have made strides in the workplace, men still remain dominant and in some instances still earn more than women. Racism and equality for all still remains a big problem that must be rectified. I really enjoyed listening to The Personal Librarian and recommend it very highly. I hope these two talented authors team up again to write another inspiring historical fiction novel.
Profile Image for DeB.
952 reviews245 followers
September 17, 2021
I’m often confounded how historical nonfiction penned by an excellent author will be riveting, whereas historical fiction with all of its artistic licence can leave a reader marooned, oddly cast adrift from the bones of the story. The Personal Librarian was that kind of disappointment for me.

The introduction to Belle Greene in the first half of the novel was quite interesting; her motivation for “passing” as a coloured woman in the midst of unrest and when any security for equality post Civil War seemed bleak brought that history to life and into a modern focus. It was astonishing, really, that she became so integral to J.P. Morgan’s pursuit of rare books and art in a time when her gender alone kept educated “well bred”women out of the workforce.

The latter half of the book devolved badly. Focussing on what author Benedict described as the “interior life”, the plot stalled, mired in the imagined life of Belle, her love affair, the titillation between herself and Morgan and floundered among the social set where she did business and lived. I resorted to skimming my way to the end- and read that many others here on Goodreads did the same.

This is my third Benedict novel (though this one was co-authored). I’m not sure I’ll be venturing back for another- even though it was interesting to be introduced to Belle de Coste Green.

Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it… 3 stars, I guess?
Profile Image for Toni.
627 reviews192 followers
June 29, 2021
Even though Belle’s father was the first Black man to graduate from Harvard, Belle’s mother knew the only way for her children to succeed in a racist America was to have them all pass as White. This combined with their intellect and a good education would help, but they also knew they would have to work twice as hard to prove themselves.

Belle Marion Greener began her life in Washington, DC, surrounded by a large, loving family. Her mother’s siblings, Belle’s aunts and uncles lived right next door to her childhood home, along with her Grandmother. The ‘Fleet’ family were all college educated, the women teachers and the men engineers, where dignity and reserve were valued. The Greener family moved to New York when Belle was only eight years old, where she lived until she moved to Princeton, NJ, to work at the Princeton University Library, as the white woman now known as, Belle da Costa Greene, explaining her darker or olive complexion as Portuguese.

The book opens in November 1905, with Belle at work at the Princeton University Library. One of the patrons is Junius Morgan, the nephew of John Pierpont Morgan (JPM), the banker and financier from NY. Junius is a generous donor to the library and an alumnus of the university. He enjoys discussing the subjects of art and literature with Belle and respects her knowledge. In fact, it is Junius who recommends Belle to his uncle J.P. as librarian for his new personal library and sets up an interview.

Just 26 years old, Belle takes her place as JPM’s personal librarian of his new private library and is charged with curating the most valued manuscripts and art in the world. As she performs her responsibilities she quickly becomes known as a shrewd negotiator traveling to Europe to procure items for the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

Belle is a determined and driven young woman, but she must always be on guard her entire life to protect her secret that she is not white, but African American. Even though she is very light skinned, as are most of her family and no doubt part Caucasian, the world will always see her as Black. And in 1905, and the first half of the twentieth century, it will remain as such.

In addition, please be aware that while the Pierpont Morgan Library (now the Morgan Library Museum, open to the public), and its contents are discussed, Belle da Costa Greene is the main focus of, ‘The Personal Librarian.’ This is her story and a fascinating one it is.

Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray did extensive research to bring authentication to Belle’s life, which was a bit challenging since Belle destroyed all her personal papers to try and guarantee her secret perpetually. Thankfully, she did leave her business correspondence.

Both authors wrote exceptional and individual Author Notes, which describe their writing process and experience in collaborating on this unique project especially during the Global Pandemic. (Must reads.) Marie Benedict, an experienced author of historical fiction, knew she needed an African American author of like experience to help her validate and understand the racism Belle experienced. Marie felt, ‘honored by Victoria’s trust when she shared her own experiences.’ They also edited their manuscript virtually, over Zoom, during the Pandemic, and experienced even more during George Floyd’s tragic death and Black Lives Matter. ‘It was a life-changing experience’ for both.

There is an Historical Fiction note as well to explain what is fact, and what is fiction.

I highly recommend this exciting book by two exceptional authors.

Thank you, Edelweiss, Berkley Publishing Group,
and Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray.

Note: I was given the opportunity to listen to the audio on Volumes, and narrator Robin Miles does an excellent job!
Profile Image for James.
Author 17 books3,480 followers
April 16, 2022
The Personal Librarian is a historical fiction novel written by Marie Benedict. I've read all her previous work and am now fully caught up on her backlog too. I've enjoyed almost all her novels, and this was one of my favorites. Perhaps because it focused on books and a time in America's roots where all the giant tycoons flourished; it's intriguing to read about them and their rise to fame and power. Belle is a light-skinned African American woman who passed for white (by claiming Portuguese heritage) and was JP Morgan's personal librarian for his book collection, which she and his descendants later turned over to the city for public viewing.

One thing that struck me most was how little of the tale focused on Belle's background. Readers were told and accepted she passed for white and lived without any issues, save for 1 or 2 people questioning her about her ancestors a handful of times. I need to do some research to find out how and when the public learned about her ethnicity, as it wasn't covered in this book. Was it shortly after her death, years later, or generally known and not discussed at the time? Benedict handled Belle's story well from a generic POV (meaning little revolved around race, even though a significant portion of the book took place in the 1910s when Jewish people were being persecuted by some of the wealthy giants).

It flowed evenly. I liked the hints of friendship and romance. Reminded me of how cruel some men could be in the past (yes, still can, but I purely mean how far worse it was 100 years ago). I am always thrilled to explore this period in history, and the setting descriptions and familiar names being dropped or showing up in conversations brought a smile to my face. A good book to decide whether you like Benedict's writing style and approach to fictionalizing history (along with telling many unknown truths).
Profile Image for Faith.
1,801 reviews479 followers
July 2, 2021
Belle Marion Greener, her siblings and their mother were Black but elected to pass as white. She changed her name to Belle da Costa Greene to separate herself from her father Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard, a lawyer, educator and civil rights activist. The one thing this book accomplished was to make me interested in learning more about Richard Greener.

Belle got a job as the personal librarian for JP Morgan, responsible for the acquisition of valuable works. Unfortunately, I am not really interested in art acquisition. Also, this book was too romance novel/women’s fiction for me. I have no idea how much of this book was fictional. While I can certainly understand the urge to pass (parts of my family passed into white Philadelphia society), Belle’s story didn’t interest me very much.
Profile Image for Linda Hart.
727 reviews133 followers
December 24, 2021
Belle LaCosta Greene, born Bella Marion Greener, was the daughter of the first Black graduate of Harvard, but she lived as a white woman in order to achieve her dream as curator of J.P. Morgan's personal library with rare books, manuscripts and artwork in the early 1900s. Her story is impressive and the prose is excellent. I found this historical fiction enjoyable however for me it was not a particularly compelling read.
Profile Image for Ingrid.
1,160 reviews37 followers
February 2, 2022
3.5 stars
This was an interesting book, as a documentary about the life of Bella Da Costa Greene and J.P.Morgan and his library. But I just couldn't warm to Bella, I couldn't get to like her.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,645 reviews433 followers
February 7, 2022
Belle da Costa Greene became the personal librarian to J P Morgan, acquiring rare books, manuscripts, and art for him. She was born Belle Marion in 1879 to educated, light-skinned African American parents, but passed as white. Her father was the first African American man to graduate from Harvard, and worked as an activist for racial equality. Her mother, Genevieve, was a music teacher who changed her children's and her own last name to Greene. She added the middle name "da Costa" as the name of a fictional Portuguese grandmother. Belle's parents separated, partly due to her mother rejecting their African ancestry so her children could have rewarding, well-paying careers.

Belle was extremely intelligent, attractive, and witty with a bold taste in fashion. She traveled in high society, meeting the top people in the art world. She was also known for her skilled negotiating with the art dealers. Belle had a close relationship with J P Morgan, acting as a confidante as well as a valued employee. Although she had affairs, she never felt that she could marry and have a child who might have dark skin. Passing as white meant that Belle had to be constantly on guard that she did not reveal her ancestry. However, passing allowed her to have a wonderful career where she could use her talents.

This was a fascinating look at the early 20th Century in New York, the acquisition of rare books and art, and the prejudice against African Americans. The authors chose a strong, deserving woman to portray in their historical novel. It's unfortunate that Belle was never able to reveal her true identity during her forty-three year career at the Pierpont Morgan Library as she shielded herself against racial prejudice.
Profile Image for Bill.
191 reviews38 followers
June 25, 2022
Belle da Costa Greene (1879-1950) feared that if the public discovered that she was colored, passing as white, even after her death, it would tarnish both her own considerable reputation as a successful career woman and the stature of the Pierpont Morgan Library she had curated, so she destroyed most of her private papers. Co-authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray build upon extensive research into the public record with educated speculation about her relationships with her family, split over the decision to pass, her employer, financier J. Pierpont Morgan, and her lover, art historian Bernard Berenson. This is a fascinating, previously little-known story, well-written, and well-performed on the audiobook by narrator Robin Miles.
Profile Image for Brittany McCann.
1,466 reviews379 followers
January 24, 2023
While there were a few slower pacing moments, I overall thoroughly enjoying learning about this remarkable woman that I hadn't previously heard of. Belle da Costa Greene was paving the way for women everywhere despite hiding behind a facade.

I cannot even comprehend the amount of pressure, stress, and fear she must have faced regularly if she was ever found out. This is a great book to help delicately grasp privilege.

I honestly loved the voice of Belle was brought to life by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. They did a fantastic job raising her memory from the tomes.

The J. P. Morgan and historical background was also quite thrilling. An excellent and worthwhile novel. Plus, the turbulent romance that Belle finds herself immersed in. It would be fascinating to read those letters and also just the fact that they weren't destroyed on someone's end!

Solid 4 stars.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,024 followers
July 15, 2021
Belle la Costa Greene was J.P. Morgan's personal librarian (and rare books and art collector) who went on to run The Morgan Library after his death, converting it into the public serving institution he always planned. Her story is fascinating, having to pass as white to live/work/move in the circles she did, how this issue separated her parents, etc. The authors did a great job at blending research with imagination; Belle may have burned her personal papers but all the people she wrote to and did business with over the years did not!

An interview with the authors will come up on the podcast but in the meantime I can recommend this book of historical fiction!
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
326 reviews
August 17, 2021
Belle feels very flat and is too perfect at: her job, her confidence, her style, her social navigation, her life, etc. There's no tension of struggle within the plot because it goes from one established historical event to another, without much build up in-between. It's a very flat book without much to flesh it out. It goes from "chapter which shows Belle at her job" to "chapter where Belle is at home and we can discuss the black experience" ad nauseum.
Profile Image for Kezia Duah.
356 reviews223 followers
September 3, 2021
Woah, this was really good. Before this book, I never heard of Miss Greene. Such a remarkable woman. I know some parts of this was fiction, but the story was written so well that it felt so true. Also before this book, I didn’t really think about what it must have been for white passing people of color. So crazy! I really enjoyed reading about her and now I just want to read about more black women who were just as and more incredible.
Great job Benedict and Murray!
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