Sunday, February 6, 2011

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann (1932)

Invitation to the Waltz was an impulse purchase spurred by the wonderful reputation Rosamond Lehmann has around the bookosphere.
It is set in 1920 in a small village and centers on Olivia Curtis. The novel begins on her 17th birthday when she receives, as part of her birthday haul, a beautiful swath of crimson silk fabric to be used to make a dress to wear for her neighbor Marigold’s much-anticipated dance. Olivia is a bookish girl, somewhat in the shadow of her beautiful and polished older sister Kate. The majority of the novel takes place at the dance, as Lehmann neatly portrays the dizzying experience of a large and chaotic dance and the ups and downs of Olivia’s feelings and attitude during the evening.
I have to say right away that I really, really loved this novel, which was surprising to me because I hated the opening pages. The narrator is a bit annoying and the description of the village and the Curtis family was very confusing. Once the narrative got into Olivia’s head, though, I was thoroughly involved in the story.
Lehmann is gentle on her characters. She doesn’t shy away from exposing their weaknesses. There are several characters who are silly, ridiculous, pathetic, snobby, mean or just plain odd. Yet Lehmann has a fondness for them that shines through and makes them human and recognizable.
The relationship between Olivia and Kate is a lovingly true portrayal of sisters. There is lots of love and affection, yet a faint strain of rivalry that colors their approach to one another.
I thought the occasional references to the war were interesting – Olivia dances with a blind party-goer who had received his injury as a soldier. This passage revealed a lot to me about how a teen who wasn’t directly affected might experience war:
“A cousin in the flying corps killed, the cook’s nephew gone down at Jutland, rumour of the death of neighbors’ sons -(that included Marigold’s elder brother), and among the village faces, about half a dozen familiar ones that had disappeared and never come back…. and butter and sugar rations; and the lawn dug up for potatoes (the crop had failed); and knitting scratchy mittens and mufflers; and Dad being a special constable and getting bronchitis from it: that was about all that war had meant.”
Olivia is a fascinating character and Lehmann a wonderful writer and I am so happy to know that there is a sequel to Invitation to the Waltz, called The Weather in the Streets, which is in the mail for me as we speak.
Has anyone else read this or other Rosamond Lehmann novels? Which ones do you recommend?

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