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The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado

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The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado is subtitled My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. The man in question is Leon Lagnado, the author’s father, and a bon vivant in pre war Cairo. Leon was a gambler, a womanizer and an observant Jew. With his upper crust British accent and his tall good looks the city was his to own. Although Leon lived the life of the wealthy he was not in fact a rich man – perhaps the reason he marries the young ingénue Edith, thinking she has more means than she does. They both believe the other is wealthier than they are – not a good start to a marriage.

In any case, they do marry, and Edith becomes Leon’s responsibility, joining him in his mother’s home – a ground floor apartment on Malaka Nazli in the heart of Cairo. Edith’s mother, Alexandra, also becomes part of the extended family. In spite of Leon’s attendance at religious services he still lives the life of a free man and spends his nights at clubs, much to the anguish of his young wife. The babies arrive, Suzette – a daughter who is never able to forgive her father for wanting a son. Then Cesar the first born son; baby Alexandra who dies as an infant and haunts each member of the family ever after; Isaac, the second son; and then Lucette – LouLou as she is called. LouLou is her father’s darling. By now the marriage is in shambles but will never end. It is LouLou who worships her father and who is the only one to whom he seems to be able to show affection. A dysfunctional family?! Only slightly.

Cairo and Egypt are also changing over these years. The Second World War ends, Israel is declared a country, and Cairo is in flames. The British, the French, the Jews are no longer welcome. Their homes and businesses are burned, including the venerable hotel, Shepheard’s, such a symbol of British rule. King Farouk is overthrown; all traces of royalty are removed as streets are renamed.

The Jews of Cairo are rapidly leaving, escaping to Australia, Venezuela, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, the United States, and Israel. Most members of Leon’s family leave for Israel, where they are appalled at the wilderness – no films, no cafes. Edith’s mother finds herself at the mercy of her relatives, a lonely and desperate old woman.

Eventually, long after the others, Leon and Edith and the children leave for the United States. None of his American relatives will sponsor them, so they become the responsibility of the Jewish Welfare Agency and are housed first in a hotel, and then a tiny flat in Brooklyn. Leon is now an old man, not well, and lost in this strange country. The family struggles to make a living and to adjust to this very different culture. The children become assimilated, but Leon still prays every day with a group of Sephardic Jews. The family survives – but they are never a normal family. LouLou still adores her father and cares for her mother. It is LouLou who, in spite of her own serious illness, cares for her parents in their old age. No doubt the others, now adult children, felt they could not survive another moment in the presence of their parents.

This is an absolutely fascinating book about a family – warts and all, living in a time and place gone forever, but captured here. Lucette Lagnado is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a masterful writer. I hope that the writing of this book, and her return journey to the home of her childhood has given her peace.

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