Invitation to the Waltz

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.

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13 Responses to Invitation to the Waltz

  1. Bina says:

    I have yet to read any of her works, but your reaction to the second part of the book makes me want to give it a try. And I love the passage that you quoted! I’m a late riser given the choice :)

  2. I haven’t read any Lehmann either but was inspired to put Dusty Answer on my Christmas wish list after it was mentioned on the jacket of Mariana by Monica Dickens. And of course she was mentioned repeately during Virago Reading Week — curse my enormous to-read shelf! I keep reading blogs and I keep changing my mind about what to read next.

  3. Christy says:

    That passage about waking up is great. I love the Saturdays when I can wake up on my own time. And I also know what is meant about starting off the day feeling bad because I took too long to get up.

    Your description of the last half of the book has sold me into wanting to read it.

  4. Dorothy W. says:

    I didn’t like The Echoing Grove (too much of a slog), but I loved A Note in Music. I tend to like her style more than you, perhaps, since I loved Invitation to the Waltz unequivocally, so I’m not sure I can really recommend A Note highly, but I did enjoy it very much.

    • Teresa says:

      I did end up liking the style quite a lot, but it took an adjustment. Now that I know what her writing is like, I’ll probably have an easier time getting into the next one I try. I’ll look into A Note in Music.

  5. Rebecca Reid says:

    I read a short story about two girls going to a dance by a famous Russian writer — but I can’t remember a thing. This reminds me of that.

    I like your comment though that you had on my blog about how this is about the minutiae. It makes it quite interesting. I’m not sure I could handle the narration style of this one though…

    • Teresa says:

      I thought it was an excellent example of how those events that seem trivial from the outside carry huge emotional consequences for the one experiencing them. And the pain-staking detail in the dance description really brings that home.

  6. Carolyn says:

    I’m glad you ended up liking this, I read Dusty Answer, her first book, for Virago week and really liked it too, after I understood what she was trying to do — portray a girl’s sexual coming of age, although with perhaps a touch more melodrama than was strictly necessary. It was a scandal at the time because it portrayed a very close, almost lesbian female friendship, as well as her romantic relationships with a trio of male cousins. I liked her writing style a lot and found the book had some similar themes to Brideshead Revisited, so if you liked that, you could try Dusty Answer.

    I bought A Note in Music afterwards and also got a copy of Invitation to the Waltz (from Virago for hosting the week!), which I was looking forward to reading, but haven’t yet. I’ve also got a copy of The Echoing Grove because I really liked the movie based on it, The Heart of Me (with Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Bettany), so I’m all set to become a Rosamond Lehmann fan when I get around to reading more of her books! I’ve heard The Weather in the Streets is about Olivia as a grown-up having an affair with a married man, if that helps.

    • Teresa says:

      It took me a while to get at what Lehmann was doing, but once I got adjusted to it, it worked well. I did like Brideshead Revisited quite a lot, so I’ll definitely keep Dusty Answer in mind. I’m really interested in The Weather in the Streets because I liked Olivia so much.

      I hadn’t even heard of the movie The Heart of Me, but I do love Paul Bettany and Helena Bonham Carter. Something else to look into!

  7. Pingback: Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann | Iris on Books

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