Belle da Costa Greene was a remarkable woman. Born in 1879, she was a cultured and beautiful woman who discretely had lovers, and was highly respected in her field. She was the personal librarian of JP Morgan, director of one of the most prestigious US libraries, and was the highest paid woman of her era. She also had a secret she successfully kept her whole life: she was a black woman passing as white.
Translated from French, this is historical fiction at it’s best. The book is thoroughly researched, with a long bibliography at the end and some pictures as well, which I really appreciated. The author makes the people she writes about leap of the page, and I loves the way the book flows so well and evokes a time and place so beautifully. It reads like a novel but all of it is true, with the author doing interviews and research for years before starting to write.
I really liked Belle. She was so fashionable and bold, and really defied the odds as a woman in her profession. I live books about libraries and people who love books. I loved that she was brave enough to do what she loves. I also liked the way that the book explored passing in America, and how some saw it as a betrayal and others as a way to beat system that were stacked against African Americans, and also the way that a light skinned African American often felt like they were rejected by both sides. Not white enough and also too white. It’s not a simple situation by any means and one that means never being able to go back and risking losing everything that you gain. It was really thought provoking for me.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Recently I’ve gone off historical fiction because a lot of what passes for historical fiction lately is really awful. It’s badly researched or barely researched, full of anachronisms and is a thinly veiled melodrama or romance with vague trappings of history or a historical moment, and often over long and badly plotted at the same time. This is real historical fiction: it’s well researched, well written, the people leap of the page, we learn a lot about the time period and all of it is accurate. This book was such a relief to me, as well as being a good read in it’s own right. More like this please.
(Also, fun note, there is a Hermione in this book!)
Read It If: you like historical fiction at it’s best. This one is so well done and I highly recommend it.
Big thank you to the publisher for the copy of this book for review
and also for restoring my faith in historical fiction.