In my review of Edmund White’s memoir “City Boy” (2009) I wrote “I haven’t yet read anything by him which has really blown me away”. I did really enjoy that book and also highlighted his 2000 novel “A Married Man” as my favourite of his fiction. I appreciated that he has made an enormous contribution to gay-themed literature but also wrote “he can come across as a little too academic in his writing and lacking warmth, perhaps investing his novels with a richness of technical skills rather than empathy.” I did qualify this by saying I had not read everything by him but that was how I was feeling back in 2018 when I read “City Boy”.
That does not mean I was not excited by the prospect of a new novel, his 14th, published in the year he turned 80. It was a surprise and not what I was expecting from him at all.
Last time out I complained he was too academic and technical and yet the reason I struggled to engage with this novel was because it felt trivial and slight. There’s just no pleasing some people! I also had my ongoing issue with empathy and really only one of the characters came alive for me.
This is the tale of identical Texan twin sisters Yvonne and Yvette (called Why-vonne and Why-vette by their family). Born in 1938 and brought up by their recently rich father (Texan oil wells) and money-grasping stepmother the girls go in very separate directions- Yvonne to a life of prestige in Paris where she marries a Baron and Yvette to a convent in Colombia. From here we encounter Yvette mainly through the letters to her sister (whose first-person narration we are reading) yet it is the nun whose character seems the most richly drawn to me. A “miracle” in her youth and her piety promotes her as a potential candidate for a sainthood yet she struggles with denying her physical longings. There’s no self-denial for Yvonne and she is soon taking a lover capitalising on the unlikelihood of divorce amongst the notable families of France.
My main issue is that Yvonne’s narration feels very much on one level. Reading on a Kindle at one point I accidentally jumped a considerable distance in the book and it was quite some time before I noticed and returned to my original place.
I had hoped that this was the great Edmund White novel which I have been expecting, especially through reading his non-fiction. I’m sure he has a truly great novel in him but this is not it. I’m beginning to think that maybe I have missed it, that this greatness is contained in one of the earlier novels I have not got round to yet. I do have his 1973 debut “Forgetting Elena” on my shelves- I recently bought a copy after hearing very good things about it. I will let you know….
A Saint From Texas is published in the UK on August 4th 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.