A Saint from Texas
by Edmund White
Reviewed by David Herkt
Appearing almost effortless, Edmund White's novel A Saint from Texas is a buoyant and joyous delight. It is White's 29th book and the hand of a skilled writer is apparent everywhere in this audacious story of identical twin girls from Texas who are destined for very divergent futures - one as a sexually adventurous Parisian aristocrat, the other as a possible future Roman Catholic saint.
True wit is rare in the age of the Twitterati, when smart-arse is generally the name of the game, but White demonstrates how much real experience, a broad field of reference, and skilful phrase-making can make something sublime. A Saint from Texas is both sophisticated and laugh-out-loud – but it contains more than just superficial entertainment.
Yvonne and Yvette have been born to a dirt-patch, multimillionaire oil-magnate in Texas. This is Dallas with a capital-D, raw, brash, tasteless, and with money to burn – green Pontiac cars, extravagant pool parties, a place where someone can happily buy an original Louis XVI chair, commission a set of new oversize replicas of it and junk the original because it is tatty.
The twins receive aspirational schooling at Texas U with its sororities ("We were all white and blonde in those days") and boys whose minds seemed set only on what lies within wired brassieres. But the sisters have already embarked upon quite different lives.
While Yvonne dates a string of young men, Yvette plunges into religious studies and conducts her first possible miracle, saving the life of a young Mexican boy after a car accident. Yvonne's destiny, however, will be in fashionable, aristocratic Paris, while Yvette's will be taking voluntary poverty in a convent in Colombia.
White's wit always has a sting in its tail. Covering a broad swathe of life from the button-up 1950s to near the present day, his role as a social satirist has never been closer to the surface. Whether it is the cult of virginity, American education, obligatory heterosexuality, male and female homosexuality, French rudeness, fashion taste, the manners of allegedly aristocratic Europeans, or the beliefs and bureaucracy of the Church, nothing is out of bounds.
Both Yvette and Yvonne are appealing lead characters. Largely told from Yvonne's point of view, the novel is a story of aspiration and its consequences. White's recreation of Yvonne's voice is authorial ventriloquism at its best. The span of the book also makes it vivid social history, unafraid of name-dropping, with walk-on parts for Jackie Kennedy, the Shah of Iran and his penchant for very young girls, along with any number of well-known celebrities, composers, and artists.
A Saint from Texas might be immensely pleasurable but, like all skilled writers, White also changes the way we see ourselves and our world, reminding us of both our own human fallibility and the complexities of life.