Lucette Lagnado’s extraordinary gifts were clearly evident in her first book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (Ecco), which won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. In it, she tells the story of Leon, her larger-than-life father who strolled the streets of Cairo with bravado and rakish charm. All this abruptly stopped, however, when Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and anti-Semitism forced her family to flee. The Arrogant Years concentrates on Lucette (or “LouLou” as she was called), her mother, Edith, and the large divide between the splendor of Old World Egypt and hardscrabble America.
Early on, Lucette identifies with Emma Peel of The Avengers show on television. Emma Peel is as fearless as she is self-assured, and so is Lucette—in her “arrogant years,” that is. Possibilities are endless, and Lucette is invincible. Given Lagnado’s ability to remember small details about her family’s life in Cairo, where her mother worked as a librarian to a pasha’s wife or the way that synagogue politics shaped immigrant life in Brooklyn, it is small wonder that, after college, Lucette became an investigative reporter, eventually working for the Wall Street Journal.
Most of all, however, the young Lucette was a rebel. At the Shield of Young David synagogue, favored by the Levantine community in Brooklyn, she hatches a plan to move her chair, inch-by-stealthy-inch, until she is sitting among the men. As the first instance of her rebellious streak, Lucette sees that “dividers” are both unnatural and just plain wrong. Dressed in a fashionable blazer (not quite Emma Peel’s leather garb, but still…) Lucette is living what F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night calls the “great arrogant years in the life of a pretty girl.”
Later, when a teenager, a bout with cancer abruptly ends her arrogant years. She gradually recovers and makes her way through college, but is never quite the same.
As a child, she wanted nothing more than to leave the women’s section of the synagogue behind. As an adult, she would like nothing better than to return to its protective fold: The large outer world that once seemed so attractive was more than matched by the world at the end of her nose: “Our closed-off area was every bit as rich and vivid as the universe beyond it.”
In her sharply etched coming-of-age memoir, Lucette trades “arrogance” for understanding and romantic impatience for the larger rhythms of Jewish wisdom. She may have begun her long journey as a stranger in a strange land, but what she comes to realize is the odd in the familiar and the familiar in the odd. Only writers of the first order—like Lagnado—can make this insight work in the shape and ring of their sentences.
This remarkable book deserves mention in the same breath as André Aciman’s canonical memoir, Out of Egypt (Riverhead). —Sanford Pinsker