When my choice for the Virago Reading Week back in January proved to be, well, not a success in any way, I asked you, dear readers, to help me decide which Virago Modern Classic from my shelf to tackle next. You overwhelmingly voted for the 1932 novel Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann. This week, I finally got around to reading it.
Since I’m committed to being honest, I must confess that for the first several chapters of the book, I felt irritated and terribly let down by this choice. The idea of the book was fine—a young woman named Olivia Curtis is celebrating her 17th birthday and looking forward to her first dance in a few weeks. I even got a chuckle out of the opening scene in which Olivia’s beautiful older sister Kate tries to rouse her from sleep. After Kate leaves, Olivia continues to lounge in bed:
Another five minutes, thought Olivia, and shut her eyes. Not to fall asleep again; but to go back as it were and do the thing gradually—detach oneself softly, float up serenely from the clinging delectable fringes. Oh, heavenly sleep! Why must one cast it from one, all unprepared, unwilling? Caught out again by Kate in the very act! You’re not trying, you could wake up if you wanted to: that was their attitude. And regularly one began the day convicted of inferiority, of a sluggish voluptuous nature, seriously lacking in will-power.
Oh, how I can relate! Although in recent years I’ve become an early riser, I’m still a big believer in the gradual waking ritual. And Lehmann describes that feeling of early-morning languor so perfectly!
But … but … those early chapters were a bit of a muddle for me. Lehmann drops the reader into the middle of Olivia’s world, and I kept feeling that I was missing out on some important family history. It’s nice not to have every point spoon-fed, and eventually the important points were explained to a reasonably satisfying degree, but it was a frustrating start.
The narrative style added to the muddle. The third-person narrative shifts between Olivia and her sister, but Olivia remains the primary focus. The shifts to Kate’s perspective struck me as odd because the book is so clearly Olivia’s. Kate’s perspective is revealing, but jarring—it’s not Kate’s book, so why are we in her head? And I found some of Olivia’s musings on life and her future to be a little tedious, as a 17-year-old’s thoughts often are to an older person—every thought and every experience at that age seem so very important. Still, Olivia’s thoughts felt authentic, and I couldn’t help but like her in the end. She’s so ordinary and relatable.
Once I warmed up to the style and to Olivia as a character, the book improved. It didn’t, however, really take off until the actual night of the dance. Olivia and Kate have been anticipating this for weeks, and when the night comes every moment counts. Will this be a life-changing romantic experience? Will it bring disappointment and heartbreak? In the minds of these two young women, the stakes are high.
The description of the dance is astounding. It feels like a real-time, moment-by-moment account. Each dance, each conversation, each wallflower moment is presented in precise detail—it’s excruciating and delightful, depending of course on what the two girls are experiencing at any given moment. Some of Olivia’s encounters were so familiar—the dance partner who starts asking about other girls, the guy who seems all too pleased with his own cantankerousness and happy for an audience, the loudly joking mob, the need just to step outside and breathe cool air. Lucky for Olivia, though, it’s not all awkwardness—there are some nice moments with others who, for one reason or another, are on the fringes of the scene. The whole party is such a perfect mix of pleasure and pain—it felt exactly right. And the day after is so wonderful—particularly her mother’s observation about Kate’s and Olivia’s versions of the dance.
In the end, I liked this book quite a lot, but that affection rests almost entirely on the last half of the book. I understand that Lehmann wrote a sequel to this book called The Weather in the Streets. If you’ve read it, or any of Lehmann’s other books, I’d love to know what you thought.