Her second memoir looks at mother first and foremost
Lucette Lagnado’s first memoir, “The Man in the Sharkskin Suit,’’ focused on her dashing, enigmatic father, Leon, during his youth in Cairo and his later years as an immigrant in America. “The Arrogant Years’’ mines some of the same material from Lagnado’s Brooklyn childhood, but this time she turns attention to her mother, Edith Matalon Lagnado, making the vital point that there can be many perspectives on the same story.
The title of this affecting book comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “Tender Is the Night’’: “How good . . . to be worshipped again, to pretend to have a mystery. She had lost two of the great arrogant years in the life of a pretty girl - now she felt like making up for them.’’ Arrogance becomes a central theme here, representing both the self-possessed confidence of a promising young woman and the dismissive, uncaring attitudes of closed immigrant communities and the bureaucratic medical establishment.
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.
Edith’s relationship with the much older Leon, a man about town in Cairo, begins with optimism and excitement, but she eventually finds her former sense of ambition and self-worth replaced with “the melancholy and self-effacement that had overtaken her since the early days of her marriage, when she’d first realized she had made a terrible mistake, and before the children had arrived one after the other to keep her busy.’’
As a young woman, Edith triumphs over her deprived circumstances in Cairo yet never recuperates from Leon’s neglect and the family’s traumatic exodus from Egypt during the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, a leader in the Arab fight against Israel.
Nevertheless, brilliant flashes of Edith’s fierce intellect and images of her sweet beauty reemerge throughout the narrative. Later in life, Edith recaptures some of the joy she felt in the pasha’s library as a cataloger at the Brooklyn Public Library.
The tale of Lucette begins in earnest with the family’s arrival in the United States when she is 6. Her arrogant years unfurl within the claustrophobic Egyptian and Syrian communities in Brooklyn. In those years her favorite show is “The Avengers,’’ a 1960s British espionage series, featuring a courageous woman, Emma Peel. Lagnado skillfully transforms the Avengers’ cartoonish oath as a delightful but powerful leitmotif: “Extraordinary crimes against the people and the state have to be avenged by agents extraordinary.’’
It’s not surprising that Lagnado becomes a successful investigative reporter at the New York Post and now the Wall Street Journal. Her sense of justice is cultivated at the family’s Brooklyn synagogue. While not exactly avenging crimes, she fights her own Goliaths, challenging rules requiring separate women and men’s sections in the synagogue and questioning why the messiah couldn’t be a woman.
The sense of invincibility that defines Lagnado’s own arrogant years is dealt a blow in 1973 when she is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at age 16. Her narrative slightly falters when she’s vague on personal medical details. She only says that her Sloan-Kettering doctors recommend exploratory surgery and a procedure to preserve her fertility during radiation treatments. Bewildered and confused, Lagnado and her parents choose not to have either procedure, a decision that still haunts the childless Lagnado.
Lagnado recovers and attends Vassar. While in college, her bout with cancer makes her feel even more like an outsider in the school’s rarified, preppy world. She recoups some of her arrogant years as a young reporter in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
But again illness - this time Edith’s multiple strokes - dampens this heady period. In the spirit of Emma Peel she “avenges’’ the sins of a broken medical system by circling back to her community’s customs and mores; she brings Edith home to die with dignity, surrounded by love. And she writes another affectionate, engaging memoir.
Judy Bolton-Fasman can be reached at email@example.com.