Few, if any, novels offer such a double dip of transformation as Edmund White’s sweeping fandango of a novel, A Saint from Texas.
I’ll say it from the start: this novel is one of White’s very best—a sprawling, enthralling story of identical twin sisters from a small town, whose lives take entirely different directions, moving and transforming their lives in radically different ways, across the landscapes of East Texas, Paris, and a hold city in Columbia, South America. Few writers are as able as White to evoke life as a busy, complex, deeply lived and most often a moving experience. He enters the times, the places and the characters and reveals even more. He’s always been able to reveal wonderfully eccentric, conversational and personalized histories containing the essence of his characters, who, beneath their charm, they can be revealed as witty, vulnerable and tough as old boots.
Growing up in the hard East Texas ghost town of Ranger (the “Oil Capital of the World”) in the 1950s, a time of “spitting tobacco chews into spittoons and endless jokes about colored folks,” the Crawford girls, Yvonne and Yvette, undergo a traumatic reversal of fortune when their abusive, alcoholic father discovers oil on his small patch of land, making the family obscenely rich. After the sudden death of their mother, their father marries Bobbi Jean, a social climber/trophy wife who insists that the family throw out their old TV and swamp coolers and move to a Dallas suburb. Dallas, Bobbi Jean believes, is where the family, with its newfound wealth, can ensconce itself in nouveau riche society.
The twins are quintessential “real Texas through and through,” identical in appearance but emotionally and mentally worlds apart. Yvonne is outgoing, youthfully naive and hyper-obsessed with French couture; while Yvette is soul-searching, bookish, reserved, striving for a purity of spirit that would put her in close communion with a greatness beyond herself.
By the beginning of their third year in college, both sisters decide to escape provincial Texas life. Yvonne goes off to Paris to work in fashion, become the wife to a titled husband, and that life of glamour she always wanted. Yvette makes her way to Jericó, Colombia, to assimilate into the life of a convent.
Every character in A Saint from Texas is essential in propelling the story line forward, and the revelations, each and every one, adding to the story’s depth. We are treated to rich, descriptive scenes of Paris and of Columbia. The characters are compelling and interesting and the story moves with many and varied plot twists that include incest, infidelity, blackmail, sadomasochism, death and murder – most of which are jaw-dropping.
When you’ve come to the close of this entertaining and wry and wise book, a book written with a singular flair, quick and good timing and delivery, in its story of harsh trainwrecks and the utter beauty of devotions, its world of sinner-saints with their hungers and their treacheries (as we root for the sisters as they face the demands of conformity and subservience); when you’ve taken the time to lose yourself in this novel, you, too, may find yourself anew.∎