In her previous memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (reviewed in RJ Spring 2008), Lucette Lagnado describes Jewish life in Cairo before and after the 1952 Revolution through the story of her father, Leon, one of 80,000 Egyptian Jews forced to emigrate. Suddenly impoverished, Leon took his young family to Paris where they waited for American visas. The Lagnado family eventually settled in Brooklyn in 1962, when Lucette (or “Loulou,” as she was called) was six years old. In this sequel, continuing the family saga in America, Lagnado focuses on her mother Edith, whom she adored and whose story is deeply intertwined with her own.
“The arrogant years” is a term Lagnado borrows from F. Scott Fitzgerald to describe “that period in a young woman’s life when she feels—and is—on top of the world.” Lagnado’s mother had experienced those “arrogant years” of hope and promise as a teenager in Cairo. Though she came from a poor family, Edith excelled at school, especially in French literature. By age 15, she had read all of Proust, and by 20 was teaching at a private school, the L’École Cattaui. There she became the protégé of its patron, Alice Cattaui, the wife of a Jewish pasha and lady-in-waiting at the court of King Fouad. At one point, Madame Cattaui, one of the most powerful women of Cairo, gave Edith a key to the pasha’s private library to borrow books as she pleased. It was the proudest moment of Edith’s life. But Edith had to leave the job she loved when she married Leon, a bachelor 20 years her senior. Leon insisted: If a married woman worked, it was assumed that her husband could not support her.
In Egypt, Edith was cowed by the demands of an authoritarian husband; in America, she became the stronger partner. When she announced that she had found a job at the Brooklyn Public Library, she did not consult Leon or ask for his permission. Still, she worried about how America of the 1960s and 70s would affect her four children, especially when her eldest daughter, Suzette, moved out to an apartment—something unheard of in a traditional Levantine culture. When her sons left too, Edith focused her attention on Loulou, her youngest child. Edith would constantly tell her, “Loulou, il faut reconstruire le foyer (‘You must rebuild the hearth’),” Lagnado recalls. “It was as if she believed I really could put back the broken pieces of our family in a way that she and Dad couldn’t.”
Edith struggled to get her daughter into the best private schools, seeking an equivalent to the French lycées of her own youth, and shopped with her for the right clothes to fit in with her well-heeled classmates. But Lagnado’s “arrogant years” as a pretty, cocky teenager ended at age 16 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She began her freshman year at Vassar with her confidence shattered.
Throughout their lives, mother and daughter shared high hopes and expectations, as well as disillusionment and irretrievable losses. Most cogent of all is Lagnado’s description of the strokes that diminished Edith later in life. Anyone who has ever been frustrated with the medical establishment when caring for a loved one will identify with her fury at its own forms of arrogance. “What the doctors failed to see was that while Mom’s memory was gone, she still had theability to feel,” she writes, recalling how they would quiz her mother on the date, the current president, and the name of the hospital as Edith shrank before them in “fear, embarrassment, then abject sorrow.” (Lagnado would quickly counter with her own “Quiz Show,” asking questions she knew Edith could answer just to bolster her spirits.) Exasperated with the care of nursing homes, Lagnado decided to bring Edith to her own home with the help of a very supportive husband. (Later she became an award-winning investigative reporter dealing with health care issues.)
Perhaps not by chance, Lagnado’s memoir resembles her mother’s favorite book, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“In Search of Lost Time”), with its chains of associative memories and longings for a feeling that cannot be recaptured. Lagnado looks back with nostalgia at the shul in the Bensonhurst neighborhood where she grew up with other Jewish immigrants from the Levant and compares its warmth to the coldness that she finds in so many parts of contemporary American society. She wonders what she had tried so hard to flee, and whether that had been arrogance too.