The Arrogant Years

The Arrogant Years

by Lucette Lagnado

Janet Kolodner (05/06/12): The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit was a biography of the author's father that helped us experience Cairo of the 1930's to late 1950s and the experience of being a 60ish immigrant to America (a very difficult story, it turned out) in the early 60s. In that book, her mother played a very minor role; she clearly had an interesting story, but she was mostly invisible, there only as a character in her husband's story. So the author determined to write another book about her mother. She's done a good job of that in this book, The Arrogant Years, and though this book is about the same time period, it really is a different story. While Sharkskin was from the point of view of a cocky then conquered man, Arrogant is about an intellectually gifted and beautiful but very poor young woman and her life changes as she was pulled along in the current, first by what was expected of young women in Cairo when they married and then by her own needs and the needs of her resettled family in the New World.

So why don't I love this book as much as professional reviewers in The New York Times, The Forward, and other publications? Well, for one, the writing is very poorly edited. We are intoduced to some organizations three times in the book and others (like the synagogue in Cairo) are simply named without saying what they are; one would have had to read the first book to know. The book reads as if the editor read late chunks of the book before early ones so didn't have a chance to fix those refences. And there are some sentences with poor grammar and others that are just too painful to read.

But worse, far more than she did in Sharkskin (see my review of Sharkskin), the author inserts herself as the center of attention too often when her mother should have that role, and I find the parts of the book that are about the author to be shallow and without analysis.

The author, I think, feels too sorry for herself (as do many of the characters she writes about). Which is a real shame, because she has a set of really good stories to tell -- some about her mother, some about herself, some about the Egyptian Jewish American and Syrian Jewish American communities, and some about us, everyday disbursed-from-out-families American Jews. And there are some interesting quandaries and tensions that arise from the stories, for example, the opportunities lost and found as we assimilate and how to navigate the tensions between modernity and Old-World community. Her descriptions of and solutions to these quandaries and tensions are 1-dimensional, though. Let's get the woman's section in the synagogue back, let's put women back into household roles, and then we can be community again. I understand why the author's life would lead her to that conclusion, but I was disappointed that she hadn't put more thought into why that was her conclusion and whethe! r it would actually work.
Rating: ***

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