Book Review for “The Personal Librarian” by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.
Summary: “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.“
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, USA – New York; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, Collaboration, Diverse Authors, #OwnVoices.
Okay, I have to get this off my chest. How unfortunate that this book wasn’t released ten days ago, so that it could have coincided with the first official Juneteenth National Holiday? See, I actually finished reading it on Juneteenth and I thought it was extremely timely, while also being timeless. By that I mean that on the one hand, it is vitally important to tell the stories of amazing Black women from America’s history that have been too long overlooked; Juneteenth is just the time to do that. On the other hand, what a sad reflection on the US that the reasons Belle was forced to hide her heritage, are things that are still happening there, to this very day; Juneteenth is just the holiday to remind us about this, as well.
By the way, although I am very familiar with Benedict’s work, I didn’t know Murray’s name at all. When I looked her up, I realized why – she apparently writes contemporary fiction which looks mostly like they’re romance novels. Obviously, my favoring historical fiction is why she’s been flying beneath my radar. That wasn’t the only reason I looked her up. The other was that I was a bit concerned that Benedict – a white woman – was writing about a Black historical character. Again, the fact that Murray is a Black author put my mind at ease. This also made me realize that this was the perfect collaboration – Benedict brought her historical fiction side to the novel, and Murray brought her #OwnVoices to the work – along with her own romantic touches. (By the way, don’t forget to read their authors’ notes, because their description of this collaboration will bring tears to your eyes – for several reasons, not the least of which is because they were working on this together during the Covid-19 lock-downs as well as the BLM protests for George Floyd and others.)
To be totally honest, as I was reading this book, I decided that the best rating would be about 4/5 stars. That’s a very good rating from me, no matter what. The main reason for this was that I felt a little bit of a disconnect with Belle. Now, this is probably because the novel was written in the first person, which means that we only get one perspective. Mind you, Belle’s view of her world and how she copes with who she is, and her place in it, is the whole point of this book. The problem is that sometimes first person means that the narrator has to include certain bits of background information (such as significant historical events, the names of famous people, or what she wore for some occasion), which tend to distract us from the heart and mind of our protagonist. While these tidbits are mostly important to understanding what was going on around her during the different phases in her life, they can also feel a bit forced. In fact, there were a few times when I felt they were slightly out of place. Thankfully, on the whole, I think Benedict and Murray did a good job of keeping them to a minimum. Plus, the prose is carefully, yet lovingly constructed, and filled with a gentle atmosphere that is perfectly blended into what feels like one, cohesive voice, which is no easy task for any two writers.
However, what got me to raise my rating was actually the authors’ notes (see above), which for me, really brought home the true significance of Belle, and the lesson her story teaches us. That being, that if there was some magical way to remove the false constructs of race, gender, and social standing (both economic and familial), that there would be no limits to what any person can achieve. Unfortunately, reality tells us that we still see each other in how they differ from us, and the prejudices that come with that, force some of us to deny parts of our own selves in order to reach for our dreams. In addition, the relationship between Murray and Benedict also emphasizes the primary importance of listening to each other, and being open to new ideas. This also aids us in acknowledging the emotional reactions of people who have different life experiences than our own, which is vitally important in today’s world.
How wonderful that this collaboration came to be, and how lucky are we all that they were able to bring us this lovely, heartfelt novel, which expresses all this. That’s why I’m strongly recommending this novel, and giving it 4.75/5 stars, rounded up to five. Read this book, please!
Berkeley Publishing released “The Personal Librarian” by Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murry on June 29, 2021. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.