Rules are made to be broken by the brilliant. It is Edmund White’s narrative brilliance that allows him to break the inviolable First Commandment of writing classes, “Show, don’t tell,” and give us the divinely well-told tale of identical twins who set out to answer the question: Can Texas be transcended?
Born in the late 1930s on a desolate scrap of East Texas soon to gush forth a fortune in oil, Yvonne and Yvette — “Why-Von” and “Why-Vet” in the original Texan — are identical in appearance only. Temperamentally, our narrator, bubbly Yvonne, and her bookish twin, Yvette, are polar opposites.
A social-climbing stepmother and a doltish Babbitt of a father use the newly minted petrodollars to grease their entry into Dallas nouveau riche society. Determined to escape the gaucheries of the family’s exclusive Turtle Creek enclave, Yvonne ascends from cheerleader to top majorette baton twirler to debutante to sorority girl. She attains her ultimate goal, member of the French aristocracy, as the bartered bride — “my title and taste for your fortune” — of the odious Baron Adhéaume de Courcy, “whose family goes back to the First Crusade.”
Yvette, on the other hand, has her sights set much, much higher. She yearns for nobility of the spirit rather than of the family coat of arms sort. While Yvonne is preoccupied with Tab Hunter, Peter Pan collars and how to keep a boy she doesn’t like from “slow-dancing up her leg,” Yvette is reading Plato and mortifying her flesh until she’s so thin that her “monthlies” stop. When she confides her desire to lead a life that will land her “in immortal, loving arms,” Yvonne realizes that her twin has “a crush on God.” Her cap firmly set on Jesus, Yvette, pausing only to perform her first miracle, makes her way to a convent in Jericó, Colombia, where, indeed, she becomes a bride of Christ.
White’s miracle is how he manages to deliver an epic — told from Yvonne’s perspective and a scattering of letters from Yvette — that covers five decades, several precisely observed cultures and a host of indelible characters in a little under 300 pages. The same story, in less skilled hands, could have easily lumbered in at twice the length.
White’s tale is exactly like a stroll through Le Jardin des Tuileries — if the garden had been planted with land mines instead of tulips. Blackmail, infidelity, incest, sadomasochism, assassination, death and murder are just a few of White’s I.E.D.s. All are nestled innocently in placid passages detailing, for example, the bric-a-brac that Adhéaume is squandering Yvonne’s money on — a $15,000 Louis XV commode; silver replicas of the furniture at Versailles; an André Charles Boulle desk of “rare woods and gold fittings” that costs more than two downtown Dallas blocks. To say nothing of the army of craftsmen the feckless baron employs to meticulously restore the family’s medieval estate.
The reader, while happily distracted by remodeling minutiae or, say, a vivid description of a meeting of the Knights of Malta, “full of backslapping, heavy teasing and faces dilated with drink-broken capillaries,” will blithely stumble upon one of White’s booby-traps and kablooey: A shocking new plot point explodes, vaulting the story forward, soaring over what might typically have been endless pages of setup, along with the sweaty palms, welling tears and lurching hearts employed to “show” a character’s emotional state. Instead, White pays us the ultimate compliment of assuming we can connect the dots on our own.
The rocket fuel that propels these abrupt plot twists past the slightest suspicion of implausibility is the author’s trademark narrative virtuosity and high-octane erudition. It is not surprising that White, a renowned Francophile and author of biographies of Jean Genet, Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud, can capture French culture with ironclad authority in such throwaway aperçus as “the eternal politeness of the French, which often concealed a barb in its silky tail.” His characterization of University of Texas sorority girls, on the other hand — “a starter tan,” “Delta Delta Delta. May I help you help you help you.” “Cute shoes!” “No dark meat in the chicken salad, plenty of mayonnaise, no weird curry powder” — is so unexpectedly convincing that you might find yourself checking Wikipedia just to make sure that the author never pledged.
Always an anthropologically acute observer of cultural footprints and foibles, White reserves his sharpest satirical barbs for the most deserving targets: the French aristocracy, racists, frat boys, social climbers, fortune hunters and “terrible Texas Baptists” with their “shallow, bigoted, self-satisfied religion!” Yvette’s world, by contrast, is portrayed without the slightest prick of irony. In her, White crafts a pure-hearted, cleareyed seeker who struggles with doubt. “It occurred to me,” the nun writes to her sister, “that the religious life was all hocus-pocus — designed to protect the rich, harbor lazy, gluttonous nuns and monks, supply fresh-faced boys for priests to groom and sodomize, drug the living and tranquilize the dying.” As White chronicles her quest for “rebirth in God’s love” in a remote Colombian village, his gaze remains profoundly compassionate. After stops for involvements, both chaste and otherwise, with the soon-to-be martyred Bishop Romero and a winsome Filipina nun, Yvette ultimately finds her path to salvation in the conviction that “it’s my job as a Christian to find what’s salvageable in every person.”
The end of White’s sumptuous novel is bittersweet. Yvonne surveys the emotional wreckage of her life and comes to the doleful realization that, though she and her beloved twin might have escaped 1950s-era Texas, the damage inflicted by their father has traveled with them both. “People,” she concludes, “can summon up only the love that was bequeathed them.”