The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray (Review by Shelley Jomaa)

2 min read

Rating: 4.8 stars

The Personal Librarian is set in New York, New York in the early 1900s, during times of racial segregation, the women’s suffragette movement, economic hardship, and war.

The story is a fictionalized account of Bella da Costa Greene, personal librarian for the financier JP Morgan.
Bella’s task is to curate JP Morgan’s personal library of rare books, manuscripts, and works of art. Her passion for art and the written word drives her to succeed as one of the only female art dealers in New York and abroad. She quickly becomes a shrewd negotiator and a force to be reckoned with.

However, Bella has a deep secret. She is a light skinned coloured person passing as white as a result of her mother’s choices. Bella’s entire career depends on never having her true identity revealed. Being caught would cost her livelihood, her reputation, and possibly her life. Although Bella and JP Morgan do become close, Bella receives a painful reminder of their differences in status when she makes an error in judgment.

This book had so many things I loved. Bella is a strongly developed character with a successful career, good friends, and a close family. She is struggling because she cannot express her true self. However, revealing her ethnicity would have meant missing the opportunity for a career she loved and would have created hardship for her family. Given the current racial crisis in North America, this book is timely and relevant even a century later.

I also loved learning about the art world and the process of curating a personal collection. As Bella travelled to museums, art galleries, and auctions, I felt like I was right beside her admiring the beautiful art and rooting for her during her negotiations for new acquisitions.

This is one of the best books I have read so far this year. The writing is beautiful, and moments of suspense make it quick and easy to read. My copy of The Personal Librarian was an electronic version, but I loved it so much I will be purchasing a paper copy when it comes out so I can share it with my other book loving friends.

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