Author: Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray
Release Date: June 29, 2021
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What’s the easiest way to live life when you’re a black person with light enough skin to pass for white? To hide in plain sight. But being able to hide in plain sight can be a blessing and a curse – accepted by the society around you but in constant fear of being outed by your roots. Known for her historical fiction on the hidden women behind powerful men, Marie Benedict, author of The Other Einstein and Lady Clementine, pairs up with Victoria Christopher Murray, author of The Ex-Files and Lady Jasmine, to release The Personal Librarian, a fictionalized account of the real curator behind the Morgan Library in New York.
Bella da Costa Greene is hiding a dangerous secret — she wasn’t born as Greene but a Greener and she’s a person of color masquerading as white in the early 20th century. Her olive complexion is easily brushed off as inherited from her Portuguese ancestors, but by embracing this lie, she turns her back on the one person who introduced her to the world of art: her father. Though it was her mother’s decision to have the family live as white, her father isn’t able to accept it since he’s the first colored person to graduate from Harvard.
But masquerading as a white person is the only way Greene can make a proper living, and by play her cards right she’s able to finagle a position as a personal librarian with one of the richest men in history: JP Morgan, famously for being racist and anti-Semitic. Greene walks a razor-fine edge every day in the presence of the intimidating Morgan because if she’s found out, her entire family would be in ruins. Luckily, she manages to hold her own with her wit, intellect, and charm.
Greene steps into her power working for Morgan and building the legendary Pierpont Morgan Library, now Morgan Library and Museum. She learns to undercut other prospective buyers before the curated items go to auction, ousting other more established collectors from getting their hands on the prize. However, fooling the rich man and his company isn’t always easy. His family, especially his daughter Anne, become suspicious of Greene’s relationship with her father, believing the librarian is using other means to bend the rich man to her will.
Learning about Morgan’s personal librarian and how she helps build the famous library was fascinating, as we generally only focus on the figurehead. Benedict and Murray do an excellent job portraying Greene and her supposed relationship with Morgan and other well-documented people in her life. However, despite great descriptions of Greene and her acumen, it just feels lacking in some way. The danger of being caught is acknowledged but never truly felt through Greene’s actions, nor when she’s alone. In that sense, it didn’t feel real.
The Personal Librarian is a light summer read, one that brings up the hardship a lot of people of color faced around the turn of the 20th century, especially women, would understand. It’s easy to believe you can sail through life masquerading as someone you’re not, but to have to live with the constant anxiety of being discovered could make anyone go crazy. Benedict and Murray shine a spotlight on the hidden woman behind the Pierpont Morgan Library, but ultimately miss the mark on having to hide a dangerous secret that could destroy someone’s, and their family’s, entire livelihood.