Edmund White chronicles the coming-of-age stories of two Texas sisters in a vivid new novel.
When we first meet Yvonne and Yvette, the twin sisters at the heart of Edmund White’s A Saint From Texas, they seem straight out of The Last Picture Show. They’re growing up in the 1950s in the fading oil town of Ranger, with their abusive millionaire father and socially striving stepmother, living in an old-school ranch-style house and spending most of their time in either school or church. They even pronounce their names in a uniquely Texan way: “Why-Von” and “Why-Vet.” (They know the real pronunciations, but refuse to “say them proper.”)
Texans have a well-earned reputation for going their own way, and so does White, known as one of the most influential voices in the queer literary tradition. Though a departure from White’s usual fare, A Saint From Texas is a literary firecracker that depicts the Lone Star State with accuracy and nuance through the stories of two unforgettable characters. An Ohio native who grew up in Chicago and has lived for years in New York, White gets the accents and attitudes right, and never comes across as patronizing to Texans. (This is, we all know, a rare feat for a non-Texan.)
At age 14, Yvonne and Yvette move with their parents to Dallas, and it’s there that their lives begin to deviate dramatically. Yvonne is determined to live what she sees as a typical Dallas life—she gossips with her best friend, sneaks cigarettes behind her dad’s back, and makes her debut at an elaborate and expensive cotillion.
Yvette, on the other hand, chooses another direction. She loses herself in classical music and books, and sneaks around not to meet a secret boyfriend, but to attend a local Catholic church, much to the chagrin of her Baptist father. “I almost wish you did have a boy—at least that would show you were normal,” he fumes. Yvonne, for her part, can’t understand her sister’s interests: “We were identical in body alone … but in spirit—Lord! In spirit we were in opposite land.” With that, White sets the scene for the divergent paths the twins’ lives will take.
The twins move to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where Yvonne pledges a sorority and Yvette develops an interest in writing and liberal politics. (She doesn’t have a boyfriend, but tells her sister, “I have several male friends on the Observer.”) Yvonne soon realizes that even cosmopolitan Austin is too provincial for her, and starts taking French lessons with the goal of moving to the continent. “Texas seemed nothing more than a tumbleweed blowing across an arid field,” she explains. “I wanted a castle with walls ten feet thick. I wanted historic jewels. I wanted a titled husband, not some heavy-drinking cowboy with a mustache and piss-soaked jeans.”
Eventually, Yvonne finds an opportunity to make her dreams come true, moving to France to live with her French tutor’s aristocratic grandmother. She sets three goals for herself: “(1) learn fluent French; (2) become a French aristocrat; (3) turn haughty.” In France, Yvonne meets and marries Adhéaume, a real-life aristocrat. He’s poor, but titled, and that’s enough for Yvonne, “though I didn’t love him. I’d never loved anyone; I wasn’t sure I believed in it.”
Yvette, meanwhile, moves to Jericó, Colombia, to live in a convent and eventually become a nun. Initially, she feels that she’s unworthy of joining the Catholic church, despite having two miracles credited to her. Her psyche has been bruised by years of unspeakable abuse at the hands of her father, whom she has somehow managed to forgive. Yvonne seems to see her sister’s forbearing nature as a piece of evidence for her holiness; she devotes much of her later years to a campaign to get Yvette named a saint.
White treats both sisters with respect and nuance. Yvonne in particular is a fascinating character. While she’s tough and determined, she also suffers from poor self-esteem that comes out, heartbreakingly, at times: “It seemed so unfair to be a big-boned, big-toothed American bimbo, head empty of thought, heart full of banality, with sloping shoulders, pockets heavy with lucre and a ready smile (too ready).”
Yvonne controls the narrative in A Saint From Texas; Yvette gets her say through a series of letters she writes to her sister from Jericó. The format is smart—it highlights the contrast between Yvonne’s obsession with class and Yvette’s studied piety. White does an excellent job chronicling the slow but steady evolution of the twins’ relationship. As teenagers, they don’t understand each other at all, but as adults, they become each others’ confidantes and confessors. The bond between sisters, White seems to suggest, is itself sacred: It doesn’t matter whether they’re saints or sinners; wherever there’s that kind of love, there’s sanctity.
A Saint From Texas does a wonderful job exploring how siblings relate to each other and how they rely on each other to navigate the world. It’s a dramatic departure from White’s previous novels, but it’s just as elegantly crafted as its predecessors. White writes with a deep empathy for his characters in prose that’s both playful and self-assured; the result is another brilliant accomplishment from one of one of the country’s most indispensable writers.
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