Investigative reporter Lagnado (The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, 2007, etc.) compares her mother's upbringing in Cairo to her own coming-of-age in Brooklyn.
The author is a gifted storyteller who spins ordinary family experiences into enchanting fairy tales, complete with magical backdrops (the streets of Cairo, New York, and Montreal), nasty villains and dashing heroes. For the most part, Lagnado's storybook style is both inviting and endearing. By the end, though, it wears thin. Many human experiences are too complex to be reduced to happy or sad, and Lagnado's determination to cast everyone she encounters as either friend or foe grows irksome. Her descriptions of places, particularly in Egypt, are vivid and evocative, but her perspective is simplistic and her adjectives are limited; people who intimidate her are “formidable,” while those she likes are “friendly” and “down-to-earth.” Often her tone is unsuited to the situation or event she is describing, rendering the narrative unintentionally funny. Her decision about whether to buy Pappagallo shoes before beginning college at Vassar and whether to withdraw from Vassar sound, in her telling, equally wrenching. Although she and her family suffered genuine tragedy, Lagnado writes as if every choice, no matter how trivial or mundane, were difficult, painful and heavy with significance. It's a delight to read about the author as an impish, spirited child; her eventual transformation into a somber, self-serious adult is an unwelcome surprise. A catatonic stroke victim by the last chapter, Lagnado’s brave and brilliant mother emerges as the book's true hero.
Often heavy-handed, but also tender and heartfelt.