Lucette Lagnado’s new memoir about coming to the United States from Cairo has been garnering a lot of attention. The New York Times alone published two reviews: “Leaving Egypt, Finding Brooklyn” and “Pretty Girls, Seemingly Pursued by an Evil Eye”.
In a way, Lagnado offers two coming-of-age memoirs in one, both her mother’s story and her own. This description of Edith’s (her mother’s) young adulthood caught my imagination. From the boston.com review: “The first chapters begin with the story of Edith’s youth. At just 19, the beautiful and intelligent Edith reaches the pinnacle of her teaching career at L’Ecole Cattaui where she impresses the school’s benefactor Alice Cattaui. The Cattauis – a wealthy Cairene Jewish family who have the ear of Egypt’s monarchy – are the benefactors of that nation’s Jewish community. Their L’Ecole becomes one of Cairo’s finest private schools and Edith one of its best teachers. She so impresses Alice and her husband, Yussef, a pasha, that she is given a key to the Cattaui’s vast personal library….Later in life, Edith recaptures some of the joy she felt in the pasha’s library as a cataloger at the Brooklyn Public Library.” It sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Being given the key to a pasha’s vast personal library?
More background is available in last week’s NPR interview with the author.
Adult/High School–The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (Ecco, 2007), the Cairo-born author’s stirring account of her Orthodox Jewish family’s decline following their forced exodus from Egypt, focused on her beloved bon vivant father. This time she tells her own story, interwoven with that of her strong, self-sacrificing mother, Edith. Lagnado, known as Loulou, focuses on their “arrogant years,” a time when young women felt confident and unstoppable. Unfortunately, forces of culture and nature kept both of them from experiencing these years to the fullest. Teens will be startled to learn that at the age of 20, Edith gave up a dream career as a teacher and librarian in order to marry her first suitor, a womanizer more than 20 years her senior. As expected, she devoted herself to raising children and keeping house. Meanwhile, Egyptian Jews, not recognized as true citizens, were forced to flee the country. The Lagnados arrived in a less-than-welcoming New York in 1963. Budding feminist Loulou crusaded to be heard beyond the dividing wall that separated the sexes at her family’s synagogue. She idolized fashionable TV avenger/spy Emma Peel. Recognizing the value of quality education, Edith guided her daughter through an assortment of rigorous schools and admission to Vassar College. But before Loulou could continue into her arrogant years, she was diagnosed with cancer. The book reads like the best kind of historical novel, rich in detail and character. Lagnado successfully recaptures the emotional struggles and angst of her teenage self, trying to find a place in the outside world while maintaining her Jewish identity and an inseparable bond with her mother.–Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD