Last month I mentioned how eager I was to read Lucette Lagnado’s Sami Rohr prize-winning family memoir,The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. This weekend, I finished reading the book. And it’s excellent.
Given what often seems an unending stream of memoir-related scandals, not to mention the primacy of what I’ll charitably call the dysfunction narrative (and of course the interrelationship between the two), reading The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is a gift. Not only does the author focus on a story that’s truly fresh (in this case, the story of a Jewish family’s history in Syria and Egypt and the massive dislocation it experienced in 1962 when emigrating from Egypt, first to France and then to the United States). Not only does she include authentic “evidence,” including photographs, documents, and file citations from the social service agencies that worked with her immigrant family in Paris and New York. But she also presents rounded portraits of multiple “characters,” especially her parents (her father, Leon, is the eponymous man in the white sharkskin suit) and grandparents (especially her two grandmothers). An exercise in navel-gazing, this is surely not. It’s not until late in the book that the author’s own life-threatening medical problems–which another writer, especially in this Age of the Misery Memoir, might have chosen to make the subject of an entire book, and which are artfully presaged in earlier chapters–take center stage. Even then, it’s the effect of her illness on those around her rather than her own suffering that seems to matter more.
What will you get from reading this book? You’ll get a sense of the culture of a Levantine Jewish community, one that I, for one, previously knew only superficially (mostly through stories about the in-laws of one of my mother’s close friends). You’ll get some history, of World War II and the Suez crisis. You’ll get stories of Jewish immigrants in France and Israel and the United States. You’ll get the texture of Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. You’ll get the almost unimaginably shocking story of what happened to one of Lagnado’s maternal uncles at the hands of Lagnado’s own grandfather. You’ll get the triumphs and the tragedies of her family, and you’ll get, in particular, a sense of the deep bond between Lagnado and that extraordinary man in the white sharkskin suit. Don’t miss it.