I started reading The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus From Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado because someone from my husband’s work lent it to him. After a few chapters, I was hooked. One of my joys in reading the book is my husband is reading it as well, so we get to compare notes on our reactions to the characters and developments.
The main character is the author’s father, Leon Lagnado. He is the man in the white sharkskin suit, always dressed up and ready to do business, gamble or party. However, in the later part of his life, he must change his ways, and this sad second half of his life is portrayed with love and empathy by his daughter. One can easily find the younger Leon an unlikable man – he is arrogant, cheats on his wife, gambles and stays out late. When Lucette or Lou Lou, as she is affectionately called, is born, one notices how he pours all his affection into this little girl. Later, a fall changes his life forever.
The family lives in a beautiful home in Cairo that they must leave after the fall of King Farouk and the rise of Nasser. Some of their relatives travel to Israel, where life is harsh, and it is difficult to make a living. The Lagnado family moves temporarily to Paris and then on to New York City, where the children adjust to life in America, but the parents never really do.
Some of the themes in the book are Judaism, culture shock, women’s issues, illness, and family relationships. Indeed, Judaism and women’s issues are intertwined, as Leon goes every day to the synagogue and the women maintain the home. One of the difficulties we (my husband and I) had with the book was how can a man consider himself a religious Jew if he cheats on his wife and gambles? The ethics are different than those of our own. At one point, the mother tells the daughter, don’t marry a Syrian (Leon’s family is originally from Syria); the implication being a Syrian man would not be good to his wife. However, other relationships described in the book are not as harsh, so I suspect Leon and his wife Edith had a particularly poor relationship. It seems like Lou Lou, the author of the book, is the main tie that holds them together.
The issue of the role of a woman arises again as the mother, Edith, applies for a job in New York City with a top publisher. Due to her classical education and brains, she surprisingly gets the job. However, she doesn’t take it, as she can’t see herself in the main role of breadwinner for the family. Later she takes a less taxing job in a library, one that feels more comfortable to her. For many years the family is supported by the older son (who is only in his early twenties at the time).
America teaches Lucette about the different kinds of Jews there are in this world. Before Passover, she spends many hours with her mother cleaning the rice so no grains should be mixed in. In America, she learns that many of her Jewish friends (those originally from European countries) would never eat rice on Passover. Still others do not follow the Passover laws at all. She is also the only woman in her family to receive some Jewish education. In the U.S. the leaders of her community realize that even though they did not educate women in the old country, in America where assimilation is so strong, it is important for girls to learn so they can pass on the traditions to their children. This reminds me a bit of my grandmother’s description of life in Russia – they would send the boys to yeshiva and the girls to what was called gymnasia where they learned French and science, so the girls then didn’t want to marry the boys because they had little in common.
Lucette comments on what the Jews from Cairo who resettle in New York manage to save of their community: the synagogues and the food. She finds there is so much that is missing, that cannot be saved. Some of it she views again when she revisits Cairo, but the new Cairo has no Jewish community. A pastry shop called Groppi’s still exists, but only in name. Gone are the famous pastries and elegantly dressed people she remembers from her childhood. When she first came to New York, she was in awe of the white bread. Her father tells her that isn’t bread, and he finds some pita to purchase, as to him, that is bread.
One notices similarities between this book and Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise. In both stories, the families are forced to leave Arab countries after living there for many generations. In both, description of the resettling in Israel in the 1950’s is stark: people do not treat each other well, and Lucette’s maternal grandmother, instead of receiving pity, is the object of derision. But the dysfunctional family theme is much, much stronger in Lagnado’s book.
If you like this review, you may also want to read Jew Wishes’ review of this book.