The Personal Librarian is a surprising personalized account of true life librarian Belle da Costa Green. Her hiring by JP Morgan was notable in its day because of her gender. But what he didn’t know (and only a few others suspected) is that her position as a library curator was also notable because she was an African American passing as White. So both the gender and the race dynamics are what makes this such a great book club choice.
Our book club questions for The Personal Librarian will help you get the conversation started by pulling at the threads of the books themes. These include the stresses of passing, the effort of carefully constructing a public persona, love and innocence in the 1920’s, and the price you pay for keeping secrets.
The Personal Librarian discussion guide also include the book’s synopsis and some selected reviews (which are worth discussion). If you liked the book, then keep scrolling, because we have three books like The Personal Librarian for you to consider for your next book club read.
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The Personal Librarian Synopsis
The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict and 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.
10 The Personal Librarian Book Club Questions
- Gertrude is Belle’s friend from college who “…doesn’t need to assess every single moment of every single day against societal standards to ensure her behavior passes muster. She has no need to analyze her words, her walk, her manner, but I do”
Consider and discuss the toll extracted when your public face has to be constantly vigilant, constantly striving to stay within the bounds of “normal or “average”.
- But then, later in the book Belle throws a lot of that conformity to the wind, by developing a bold style of dress, going on the party circuit and beating her male colleagues at their own game. Why was she more comfortable doing it then? Did the muscle behind the library give her cover?
- After a shared and knowing glance with a serving woman at a society party…” why does she serve, while I am served? Why is it that the relative whiteness of my skin has given me this chance at privilege? It seems incomprehensible, but it is thus.”
Belle has several such moments with the serving staff at different parties. What are they seeing in Belle that her white friends and colleagues didn’t see?
- Belle isn’t the only one keeping secrets. Who else was holding back? And what would have been the consequences if their own secrets had become public?
- “Marriage is not something that I’ve really considered. I’ve always known that, because of my heritage, a traditional relationship would not be possible for me. Not only because of my family’s financial dependence but because a marriage means children, and that is something I cannot hazard. Without the fairer skin of my siblings, I could never risk bearing a child whose skin color might reveal my deception.”
Choosing to neither marry, nor have kids was a very unconventional choice in Belle’s day. How much of this choice do you believe was concern about whether a potential child could pass…and how much would you put down to her unconventional ways?
- What about that relationship between Belle and Bernard Berenson? What drew them together? What forced them apart? Was he a cad? Was she naive?
- Some of the more negative reviews of the book found it either slow going after the mid-point, or they found the dialogue stilted (or both). Did anyone in your group have this negative reaction? How did you find the pacing?
- Before reading the book, how familiar were you with passing? Have you read other books with passing characters? Have you had any friends, family members or ancestors who have passed?
- From the book…“I still believe. I still believe that someday there will be equality in this country. That someday there will be a new civil rights act, and a new president and Congress to enforce it. That everyone will be able to follow their dream, regardless of race. That those words about the equality of men in the Declaration of Independence will be true.”
Has this sentiment come true since the ’20’s? If so, how? If not, why?
- Working for the Pierpont Morgan library was Belle’s absolute dream job. Imagine how she felt walking into the library that first day. Do you love libraries? What’s your literary dream job?
Selected Reviews of The Personal Librarian
We’ve curated these reviews because they reflect a range of experience with the book and hearing what others have had to say may give you some fodder for your own book club discussion.
“The Personal Librarian…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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“The latter half of the book devolved badly. Focusing 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.”
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3 Books like The Personal Librarian
Many books nerds revere librarians for their social ethic and their role in turning mere mortals into book-lovers. If that’s you, then be sure to check out our list of 20 books about librarians. It covers a range of genres and it features librarians that are lovers, heroes, magicians, strong men and crime solvers. We’ve also got a guide for The Lions of Fifth Avenue, which features a suffragette timeline and also a library.
And here are three more books like The Personal Librarian that cover similar themes and settings.
The Only Woman in the Room, by Marie Benedict
Benedict has done a whole series of fictionalized accounts of real women. In this book, she covers Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr had a dramatic start as the wife of a Austrian arms dealer during WWII. She was Jewish, and so when things got too hot there, she fled to the US…and Hollywood.
She ultimately found success as a Hollywood actress. But she was also a scientist. And the book follows that thread down some surprising pathways.
City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Gilberts book covers a similar time period of New York, starting in the late 1930’s and through WWII (and beyond). In the book, Vivian is sent, or rather banished, by her parents to stay with her eccentric aunt, who runs a Broadway playhouse. The book features a broad cast of female characters, many of whom were bucking the prevailing societal norms in their pursuit of both work and sexual freedom.
It shares The Personal Librarian’s setting as well as themes like seeking financial independence, stretching social morays and sexual agency.
Recommend it to your book club and you can use our City of Girls discussion guide to fuel your discussion.
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
If you are interested in reading more about characters who are passing, then check out The Vanishing Half.
The Vignes twin sisters are identical. After growing up together in a small, southern black community, one chooses to stay and live as a Black woman. The other heads off to California where she builds a life as a White woman. It’s an emotional family story that pokes hard at the notion of race.
Check out our reading guide for The Vanishing Half. The book is also part of the Good Morning America book club.
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