“It’s a one-note song, but a good one.”
The Personal Librarian is an amazing true story describing the dichotomy of a brilliant young Black woman who lands her dream job as the librarian for one of the icons of industry and art — J. P. Morgan. In this position, Belle establishes an international reputation as a shrewd negotiator, an insightful judge of antiquities, and a charming lady who moves among the rich and famous with ease and grace. But (and this is the main point of the story) in the early nineteen hundreds it is essential that Belle hide her background and pretend to be White. Throughout the fascinating story, she is constantly terrified that someone will discover her true race, which her mother has taught her to hide since birth. It’s tragic that she must live a lie in order to avoid disaster. It’s lucky that she is light-skinned enough to pretend to have Portuguese heritage rather than African-American.
Belle’s journey is interesting, as are her loves. The first-person narrative contains a thousand questions she poses to herself as we live inside her head. The prose here flow like fine wine (but bring a Thesaurus) as Belle floats through the world of high-priced art and works to acquire the most precious and rare manuscripts for the library’s collection.
Constrained by the historical facts, the author weaves a respectable fiction, making Belle’s life as interesting as possible and fabricating her thoughts, fears, passions, and successes. There are few missteps or disappointments, which after a while gets predictable, but always tempered with the terror of possible discovery. It’s a one-note song, but a good one.
Certainly recommended reading (I picked it up for my book club) and it presents both a historical glimpse into the world of JP Morgan and his amazing library collection as well as the triumph and secret of his librarian. Thought-provoking and historically significant.