From Washington Post Book World
By Ilene Prusher
In his classic book “On Becoming a Novelist,” John Gardner says that anyone who hopes to write a novel would do well to be burdened by angst about his origins: “Belligerent defensive guilt about one’s race or country of upbringing . . . these are promising signs.”
The same could be said for the aspiring memoirist. And that’s exactly the vein that Lucette Lagnado has tapped into with her second family memoir, following the success of “The Man in the Sharkskin Suit,” which won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2008. In that book, the writer focused on the life of her father, who cut a dashing, aristocratic figure in Cairo in an era when Jews were part of the upper echelons of Egyptian society.
“The Arrogant Years” focuses on the equally compelling life of the writer’s mother and their close yet strained relationship. While this new memoir also brings readers into the fascinating world of old Cairo before and after the overthrow of its monarchy in 1952, Lagnado is at her best when she plumbs her own psyche to sort out her life’s ups and downs. It is a life that begins in Egypt but meets its most formative moments when she is an adolescent and a young woman in America struggling to carve out an identity in a nation whose values differ greatly from those she learned in the Middle East. She borrowed her title from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who describes a character in “Tender is the Night” as having “lost two of the great arrogant years in the life of a pretty girl — now she felt like making up for them.” Lagnado examines a youthful arrogance that was lost to illness and later regained — but only in part.
She starts by taking us on a journey to the Cairo of her mother’s youth, where Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisted and French-speaking cosmopolites saw themselves not just as Egyptian but as of the Levant — that lovely geographical and cultural concept that has all but faded away. Her mother, Edith, a beautiful teenager who was a budding intellectual and bibliophile, caught the eye of the pasha’s wife — the lady-in-waiting to the queen — and was given the key to the pasha’s voluminous library and tasked with acquiring new books. But the career of the young woman who had read all of Proust by the age of 15 came screeching to an end when, barely 20, she married a man in a sharkskin suit: Leon Lagnado, more than two decades her senior. Respectable women were not expected to work once married, and Edith conformed to that custom.
Although I am a lover of all things Levantine and have visited Cairo enough times to recognize the neighborhoods, hotels and eateries that Lagnado describes, I found myself most captivated and moved by her writing about her new life in America. While the book is a worthy exploration of the immigrant experience, Lagnado succeeds most when she explores issues that have little do with her newcomer’s status. Primary among these are her reaction to being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in high school and her feelings of being devastatingly lost during her freshman year at Vassar.
She writes poignantly about a childhood girlfriend who was not permitted to see her because the girl’s family believed Lagnado’s disease was contagious. This taught Lagnado not to tell any of her new friends at college about her bout with cancer. “I felt as if I were indeed contagious — in quarantine — surrounded by an invisible wall that kept me apart from them.”
Lagnado’s mother was convinced that a curse — the evil eye — had been placed on the family and that all misfortune, including Lagnado’s illness, could be attributed to it. Even some of her siblings believed that “it was as if a curse — a curse of biblical proportions — had been placed on our household.” In this way, “The Arrogant Years” is sometimes reminiscent of Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” in which whole families are cursed with a tough-luck “fuku” they just can’t shake.
Some parts of Lagnado’s memoir are frustrating. In recalling her early rebellions against the separation of men and women in her Brooklyn immigrant synagogue, she describes a mikve as a place “to be purified of the sin of being female.” (The mikve is used for a variety of purity rituals and serves as a place where traditional Jewish women immerse themselves after menstruation, but the waters are not meant to be a sin washing-machine.)
Sometimes Lagnado introduces topics in a convoluted way. For example, we learn that she has become a muckraking journalist, seemingly a key part of the narrative, only when she writes toward the end of the book that her stroke-stricken mother picked up her reporter’s notebooks. But if you can follow the narration, even when it winds like the Cairo alleyways, Lagnado’s is ultimately a rewarding journey.
Ilene Prusher is a former Middle East bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor and is deputy editor of the Jerusalem Report. Her first novel, “The Fixer of Baghdad,” will be published in Britain next year.