A Saint from Texas: A Novel
- By Edmund White
- Bloomsbury Publishing
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Daniel Weaver
- September 21, 2020
This intelligent, dual-narrative tale showcases the author’s masterful storytelling.
“This life is ruled by the rich, the fashionable, the trendy, and the beautiful; the afterlife is ruled by artists and scientists alone,” declares Yvonne Crawford, a rich, fashionable, trendy, and beautiful Texan who marries into impoverished French nobility while studying abroad in the late 1950s.
In addition to artists and scientists, one might add that saints rule the afterlife, too, and A Saint from Texas, Edmund White’s latest novel, duly provides one: Yvette, Yvonne’s identical twin.
White’s novel tracks Yvette and Yvonne in a magnificently paired narrative from their childhood in Dallas to Paris and Colombia. The story works a bit like a double helix, whereby the two are kept apart but at the same time immutably joined.
The sisters appear at first as opposites despite their shared genome: Yvonne, youthfully naïve and obsessed with French couture, and Yvette, bookish and reserved. The novel is narrated mostly from the perspective of Yvonne, the Texan-turned-Parisian, from a distance of some 30 years.
In Texas, Yvonne enjoys a charmed youth and “a spectacular debut, the highlight of the season,” which is marred only and irreversibly by her discovery, the night of the ball, that her father is sexually abusing Yvette, who eventually seeks solace in religion.
Yvonne’s narration is broken up by the sisters’ epistolary correspondence, primarily Yvette’s letters from Colombia, which constitute a large portion of the novel’s middle. The relationship between the sisters is the story’s through-line, though they encounter each other only once outside of Texas. The effect they have on one another is best described as a kind of magnetic repulsion that propels them into opposite worlds but cannot separate them entirely.
In Paris, Yvonne is disillusioned by her noble husband, Adheaume, and by the unbearable self-consciousness of French culture, which she nonetheless embraces. Yvette, who suffered the tyrannical whims of her father, finds a kind of deliberate disillusionment, and some happiness, in the materially barren strictures of Catholic life. Her letters describe an ascetic search for purity and piety in rural Colombia and her sexless but spiritually profound romances with a priest, Father Oscar, and later, a convent sister, Mercedes.
In her final letter, Yvette relates her decision to relocate to an indigenous community in the Andes, a suggestion passed on in her last confession to the jealous Father Oscar, who is later assassinated at the hands of government forces.
Sex and the sexual abuse suffered by Yvette are recurrent themes for both sisters, who experience horrific relationships with men. In Yvonne’s case, Adheaume leverages their children (twins again) to prevent a divorce and ensure unimpeded access to her fortune, without which he cannot restore the family chateau and, thereby, their reputation among the aristocracy.
White’s portrayal of French nobility — its prejudice, self-obsession, and pathological insecurity — is one of the novel’s signature pleasures, tempered as it is by Yvonne’s suffering at the hands of her spouse and his parents.
At the same time, Yvonne’s power of observation regarding the many cultural differences between Texan and French society is overwritten in a few cases, as when she notes the inadequacy of an English translation or explains a French term and gives the impression, years after settling in Paris, of a student just returned from a semester abroad.
In Yvette’s case, she finds herself tempted by Sister Mercedes, who accompanies Yvette to a Crawford family reunion in Paris, where the abusive episode in Dallas is repeated — a disturbing scene which White narrates through Yvonne’s eyes in stunned but matter-of-fact sentences:
“She was standing there, allowing this terrible thing to happen to her, her oldest fear, the end of her vows of chastity, the ultimate defilement. In our family the worst things imaginable happened so fast they couldn’t be understood.”
White is best known as one of the early and most prolific writers of gay literature in the United States, and there is a certain indeterminacy to the sexual preferences of the sisters. Less so for Yvette, whom Yvonne refers to once as a “lesbian nun,” notwithstanding her affection for Father Oscar, than for Yvonne, who shares an early sexual experience with a childhood friend, Jane Beth.
Yvonne marries a man but never enjoys marital sex, finds pleasure with an Italian prince and, later, both him and an American actress together. At the end of the novel, she writes to Yvette, who is revealed early on to have died in the indigenous Andean village, that “you and I are a little bit gay around the edges.”
The present tense, perhaps, is evidence of the sisters’ enduring bond. But what is one to make of this bond when the worlds they inhabit — titled French aristocracy and Colombian Catholic austerity — are irreconcilable?
Immediately after Yvette’s death, Yvonne proposes to Mercedes that they put forward Sister Yvette — who usefully performed at least one miracle back in Texas while she was still alive — for canonization. As it turns out, that process resembles nothing so much as the politics of social climbing, which Yvonne has mastered at great personal cost.
Thus, Yvonne turns to her innumerable contacts in French society and the Church to lift Yvette to the rank of Venerable and, soon, Blessed. But, as for the last step, sainthood, a priest reminds her that “the actual canonization will take place long after we’re gone.”
That such a delicately balanced novel comes from a writer as experienced as White is no surprise. In a recent profile, Alexander Chee remarked, “I think we are still in the process of learning how important [White] has always been.” A Saint from Texas is no small pleasure in itself, but it might just as well serve as a welcome reminder of — and entry point into — his immense body of work.
One suspects people will be reading Edmund White long after he’s gone, too.
Daniel Weaver's writing appears in Radii, the Full Stop Mag Blog, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @danielaxweaver.