Filled with melancholy

September 14, 2012

Book Reviews

The Arrogant Years
One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth
From Cairo to Brooklyn
Lucette Lagnado
Harper Collins, 2011
402pages, $25.99
ISBN 978-0-06-180367-3

By the end of Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 award-winning bestseller memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, it was apparent that her family would not realize the American immigrant dream. Her father, Leon, successful, imperious and elegant in Egypt, had been “the man in the white sharkskin suit.” But suffering from a badly healed broken hip and unable to find meaningful jobs in America, he never permitted his wife, Edith, to work, thus sentencing the family to a penurious existence. In his vain attempts to force his older three children to remain fully observant of Jewish law, he drove them out of their home—eventually to find success on their own. By the time Lucette (little Loulou) was of an age to understand her father’s decline, he had come to the point where he seemed disinterested in life, causing the reader to wonder whether the earlier portrait she painted wasn’t partly fantasy.

In any event, The Arrogant Years (not to this reviewer’s mind an appropriate title— but explained in the memoir) is Lagnado’s reconstruction of her mother’s life, a life of glowing expectation. Combining beauty with intellectual achievement and charisma, Edith at 20 gave up a promising career to marry Leon, age 42. She entered an advantaged life in which women were not permitted to work outside the home—their function limited to running the household. When events stripped the family of its privileges and servants, Edith became shopper, cook, and home cleaner.

We see the Lagnado household through the eyes of the pre-teen Lucette, and therein lies a weakness in this sequel. In an attempt to define herself, the author devotes too much time to her childhood struggles in what has clearly become a dysfunctional family. Her mother invests herself entirely in Lucette as the last hope of “repairing the hearth,” maintaining the family life in the absence of her three older children. Lucette becomes Edith’s project, as she is pushed toward rapid advancement, from public to prestigious private schools, despite the family’s impoverishment. Her teen years become dominated by a nearly terminal illness and lengthy treatment for Hodgkin’s disease, leaving her unable to bear children. Lucette is convinced that she is “damaged merchandise”—never to expect romance and a “normal” life.

For those readers who yearn to learn what happened to the Lagnado family, The Arrogant Years fills the bill. Lagnado travels to Israel and Cairo to search for evidence of her mother’s past, and derives solace from touching the very books handled by her mother as a young librarian. Further, Lagnado seeks out and reveals what happened in the lives of an assortment of childhood friends.

Well-written and nicely embellished with literary references attributable mainly to her well-read mother, The Arrogant Years lacks the drama of the author’s first memoir. In fairness, it is likely that the tribulations of an immigrant family struggling to survive and faced with issues of assimilation and “moving out” is an old story previously well told by authors of the early and mid-20th century. The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit fascinated us with its portrait of Levantine Jewish society, at once exotic and intoxicating. Filled with sadness and Lagnado’s lifelong history of protesting and failing to accept weakness in herself or in others, the reader will be disappointed if seeking uplift. Her mother, in her good days, would fall back on the preferred French of her Egyptian upbringing and, if asked to summarize the feeling evoked by this memoir, might use the term “tristess”—melancholy. Perhaps the title should have been, The Melancholy Years.

Lucette Lagnado received the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and has co-authored Children of the Flames: Dr .Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. She is currently a senior special writer and investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and is married to Douglas Feiden, a veteran journalist.

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 27 years.

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