Belle Greene

Alexandra Lapierre

Book - 2022

New York in the 1900s. A young girl fascinated by rare books defies all odds and becomes the director of one of the country's most prestigious private libraries. It belongs to the magnate J.P. Morgan, darling of the international aristocracy and one of the city's richest men. Flamboyant, brilliant, beautiful, Belle is among New York society's most sought after intellectuals. She also hides a secret. Although she looks white, she is African American, the daughter of a famous black ...activist who sees her desire to hide her origins as the consummate betrayal. Torn between history's ineluctable imperatives and the freedom to belong to the society of her choosing, Belle's drama, which plays out in a violently racist America, is one that resonates forcefully, and illuminatingly even today.

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Biographical fiction
Historical fiction
New York : Europa Editions 2022.
Item Description
"Copyright © Flammarion, Paris, 2021. First publication 2022 by Europa Editions. Translation copyright © 2022 by Europa Editions" -- verso.
Physical Description
524 pages, 16 unnumbered of plates : illustration (some color) ; 24 cm
Main Author
Alexandra Lapierre (author)
Other Authors
Tina A. Kover (translator)
Review by Kirkus Book Review

In this fictionalization of a true story, a young Black woman named Belle da Costa Green passes for White and rises to become the first director of J.P. Morgan's library. In this extensively researched historical novel, we see Belle from the time she's a young woman born Belle Greener, daughter of the first Black man to graduate from Harvard. After he abandons his family, Belle makes a pact with her mother and siblings to change their surname and pass for White. They swear secrecy. None will have children, for fear of being found out: "Six irrevocably intertwined fates, and if any one of them were to fall short, it would bring the others down with it." Brilliant, bookish, and unsentimental, Belle gets a job at the Princeton library, where she meets Junius Spencer Morgan and eventually finds her way to his uncle J.P., who's looking for someone to oversee his new project. Belle's literary expertise helps her secure Morgan's trust, and he rewards her with the responsibility of shaping the library's collection. Belle closes herself off to thoughts of her heritage or her former life. Her focus on success remains singular. Morgan is mercurial and possessive. Belle is formidable. She's torn by twin feelings: "the intoxication of feeling herself to be free, and the frustration of having to submit to the tyranny of her master." Eventually, Morgan sends her to Europe to bid on items at auction; the library is entirely hers to shape. Yet she's aware at all times that she has "a career based entirely on the protection of an individual more rich and powerful than [herself]." Tension builds as Belle tries to avoid losing the career that supports her family. As she tries to outbid the other collectors of the day in a new world that's full of wealth and eager to grab up the world's treasures, she presents a carefully shaped persona. She adopts a new background because she believes it's the only way to succeed in a broken system. Passing for White puts Belle's life at risk every day. She's consumed by the library and her secret; scenes with her real-life historical counterparts are fleshed out with dialogue drawn from primary sources such as letters. Occasionally these conversations feel stilted, but Belle's story is so exceptional that readers won't mind. An engaging story about a brilliant woman who risks everything. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.