Steve August 31, 2020

‘A Saint from Texas’

By Edmund White

Bloomsbury Publishing

$18.20/304 pages

I’ve never been fooled by magicians. Even if I’m entranced by their magic, I’m still trying to figure out what tricks are involved. Yet, in his latest novel “A Saint from Texas,” queer writer Edmund White makes you believe that you can pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Readers, queer and non-queer, look forward to a new book from White as eagerly as movie fans wait for the Oscars.

White, now 80, has written more books than you can count from “The Joy of Gay Sex” to memoirs such as “My Lives” to biographies of Proust and Rimbaud to “A Boy’s Own Story” and other autobiographical novels. He taught at Princeton for 19 years. White, whose husband is writer Michael Carroll, has lived for much of his life in New York and Paris.

White is part of the first generation of LGBTQ writers to write for a queer audience. “Gay fiction before that, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, was written for straight readers,” he told The New York Times.

It wasn’t surprising when the National Book Foundation presented White with the 2019 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

White, who’s lived with HIV since 1985, has been an LGBTQ activist. He was a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

“A Saint from Texas” is a departure from anything from what White has written before. Its main characters are women, twin sisters, not gay boys and men. Though much of the novel is set in Paris, the twins – Yvonne and Yvette, born in the 1930s, grow up in East Texas.

My heart sank as I first dipped into this book. The twins are teenagers in the 1950s. I have friends from Texas. There are lovely places in Texas. But who wants to read about girls stuck in Texas? True, they’re rich. Their father, born poor, has made millions from oil. And their stepmother is into clothes and society. But their father, who sexually abuses Yvette, insists that they remain “terrible Texas Baptists.”

Like Yvonne and Yvette (pronounced “Why-Von” and “Why-Vet” by their family and friends in Texas), I wanted to get as far away as I could from where they lived in Texas.

Mercifully, for the twins and readers, the sisters escape from Texas. “A Saint from Texas,” narrated by Yvonne, tells the story of their radically different journeys.

You’d find it hard to imagine people any more unlike each other than these sisters. Thank God, Yvonne is the narrator! Fortunately, we only hear from Yvette sporadically in her letters to her twin.

I don’t mean to dis Yvette. It’s just that Yvonne is the fun twin who has a sense of irony. As a teen in the 50s, she talks for hours with her friends on the phone, sneaks cigarettes (even though her father has promised to give her $1,000 on her birthday if she doesn’t smoke) and has a crush on one of her girlfriends.

Yvonne escapes to Paris. There, exchanging her fortune for his title (and entry to French society), Yvonne marries a French aristocrat. He’s a sexist, homophobic cad. Even so, Yvonne gets to hobnob with Audrey Hepburn while buying dresses at Givenchy, chat with actresses in Truffaut movies at parties and have male and female lovers.

Yvette is saintly! Early on, as Yvonne says, Yvette develops a “crush on God.” She wants to be virtuous – to help poor people – to find herself “in [God’s] immortal, loving arms.” To that end, she becomes a nun and missionary in Colombia. You almost think that Yvette is an insufferable saint until she says in a letter to Yvonne, “It occurred to me that the religious life was all hocus-pocus.”

In lesser hands, you might have given up after reading only a few pages of this novel. But, due to White’s magic touch you’ll find yourself spellbound by “A Saint from Texas.”

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